Thursday 29 June 2006

Painful moments on The Painful Truth

Long before the late and unlamented site appeared, Ed Mentell's Painful Truth was a place where "exxies" could hang out, chew the fat, cuss a little and work through their issues with a manipulative, controlling religious movement called the Worldwide Church of God. It wasn't always subtle, but it was effective.

A year or three ago Mike Minton took on Ed's mantle. Change can be upsetting, but Mike brought his own sense of humor and personal verve to the operation. I've never met Mike "in the flesh", but after exchanging scores of emails I count him as a good friend.

Sadly, it seems that in the latest transfer of the reins, the site has developed speed wobbles, flipped and crashed in a hail of mixed metaphors. Some people are stressed out at the thought that the PT is in jeopardy, harsh words have been exchanged and blame is being spread like plum jam on English muffins.

Mike is assuring folks that an archived version will appear again at, but the partly revamped version produced under John B's short editorship has apparently been removed for good. The PT forum, always a place for the free and frank exchange of views, is full of unhappy campers.

I hope people will give Mike the benefit of the doubt and time and space while the dust settles. In case anyone hasn't clicked yet, running a website like the Painful Truth, or the old AW, is no easy mission, and the webmaster can be left carrying the responsibility with little to show in return other than bills, threats, lost time and sapped energy. I'm not in the loop on the whys and wherefores, but it's a bit gut-wrenching to see good people like Mike, John and other regulars (many of whom were also AW regulars) at loggerheads. Let's all take a deep breath. Maybe it's time for someone with the time and talent to bring out a completely new website to complement the PT, or maybe fill the niche vacated by the pre-blog AW. One thing I do know, there's no lack of able candidates - if one cares to raise their hand...

We all get passionate about things that matter to us, and PT readers - especially those on the forum - understandably feel a sense of shared ownership. At the end of the day, though, it's the webmaster who carries the can. I'm guessing that a few deep breaths and some kind words of appreciation to all concerned may be more helpful at the moment than simply spitting the dummy.

Monday 26 June 2006

Two cents worth on The Herb-Vinci Code

Last night I finally got around to seeing the movie version of The Da Vinci Code. Everybody has an opinion about this one: too long, too full of inaccuracies... whatever. My two-cents worth is that it was quite good, though maybe it helped to have read the book first.

DVC is a pot-boiler that blasted through the stratosphere for no apparent reason. Other contentious books on a similar theme have quickly sunk beneath the radar screens, but Dan Brown seems to have hit a nerve at ju$t (!) the right time to rake in the profits from an unlikely subject.

The movie is more balanced than the book. Ron Howard has his hero (Robert Langdon) challenge Leigh Teabing's constant overselling of the conspiracy angle, and Sophie Neveu needn't say anything with a wistfully seductive smile like that... (sigh)

COGophiles like Spanky Meredith initially had positive things to say about Dan Brown's book, probably because anyone who has un-nice things to say about early Orthodoxy/Catholicism is seen as some kind of ally ("the enemy of my enemy..."). Lately though the tide has turned and the pulpit-pounders seem to have have gleefully joined the Evangelical debunkers.

Da Vinci Code deserves a full measure of debunking, but the trouble is that the eager DVC-bashers often have even less credibility than Brown. The best offering (here goes another 2c) is Bart Ehrman's Truth & Fiction in the Da Vinci Code. But, hey, it's a novel, not a tome of church history!

As for those COG reviewers, gimme a break. This is a movement that bought a nuttier conspiracy theory than anything Dan Brown has ever come up with: let's call it the Herb-Vinci Code. You may know it as British Israelism. Tea-Tephi, Jeremiah, Irish royalty, Mrs Windsor, sea gates... what was J.H. Allen smoking? And what were we doing giving that garbage even a second glance.

DVC at least has the virtue of using (very badly) some real history. Yes, he gets it all muddled and charges off in strange directions, but Allen, Armstrong, Collins and White haven't even got that far before launching off the deep end into a fantasy-history which they proclaim to be true beyond doubt.

Mind you, who knows, maybe Craig has already sold the movie rights to "Origin of Nations." If not, I'll put in the first bid. Two cents.

Saturday 17 June 2006

The quality of COG humor

COG humor - the kind the ministers toss from their pulpits - has always been a blunt instrument. Regrettably it has on occasion been openly racist. There's the prominent Aussie UCG minister who delights in using the term "bubble butt" to describe women of color, while I recollect vividly a one-liner from former Auckland WCG pastor Jack Croucher relating to what can only be euphemistically called the "color-coordination tastes" of Afro-Americans. The congregation predictably guffawed in delight.

But the years have passed and we've all got a little more circumspect about such things. In my salad days I admit to engaging in a few Peter Sellers-type impressions. Back then I didn't know any Asian people personally, however when you work alongside a dignified Sri Lankan woman with a beautiful but pronounced accent, you suddenly realize just how downright churlish it is to make fun of it. To call it "political correctness" is to miss the point entirely. It's simply about treating other people with respect and a measure of dignity. Can someone claiming to be Christian possibly do less?

Enter Jerold Aust, Good News writer and UCG minister. Such subtleties are apparently lost on this bloke who, on a website where he preens and fluffs about his Christian beliefs, has a little collection called "Learn Chinese in Five Minutes." It's not explicitly racist, but you'd have to wonder whether it's exactly appropriate. In case you're wondering whether I'm entirely objective in pointing this out, it was a UCG member who first raised the question and set me thinking. Here's what Mr Aust posted (currently appearing at

1) That is not right.........................Sum Ting Wong
2) Are you harboring a fugitive?.............Hu Yu Hai Ding
3) See me ASAP...............................Kum Hia Nao
4) Small Horse...............................Tai Ni Po Ni
5) Did you go to the beach?..................Wai Yu So Tan
6) I bumped into a coffee table..............Ai Bang Mai Ni
7) I think you need a face lift..............Chin Tu Fat
8) It is very dark in here...................Wai So Dim
9) I thought you were on a diet.............Wai Yu Mun Ching
10) This is a tow away zone..................No Pah King
11) Our meeting is scheduled for next week...Wai Yu Kum Nao
12) Staying out of sight.....................Lei Ying Lo
13) He is cleaning his automobile............Wa Shing Ka
14) Your body odor is offensive..............Yu Stin Ki Pu
Have a great week and weekend.~jwa

Funny? Perhaps some of the brethren in Singapore or Burma might like to comment. It would be interesting to find out from UCG how they "officially" feel about this kind of ragging.

Thursday 15 June 2006

Links worth checking

Anyone who has missed their regular dose of Diehl following the closure of the old AW, can get a fresh fix here. Den is that rare variety of former WCG pastor who has managed to avoid (a) sliding into a tithe-garnering splinter ministry or (b) flipping over to a variety of Evangelical mush... and he's kept a sense of humor along with his integrity! Thanks to fellow blogger Felix for pointing out the link.

Gary Scott has some very perceptive comments on one of the more obscure mini-COGs, David Pack's Restored Church of God. It's always a good idea to resist the "blame the victim" mentality, but sheesh, what kind of IQ is required to believe this guy? Read it and weep.

Wednesday 14 June 2006

Brian Knowles steps down

Brian Knowles, a Plain Truth editor in the distant past, has announced his decision to step down as a regular columnist for The Journal. In an article that appears on Ken Westby's site (and I guess will be published in the next issue of The Journal) Brian writes:

"In my quest for truth, I’m simply one of many Pod people trying to find his way amidst the smoke and confusion of ecclesiastical chaos. The Journal’s pages are full of assertive statements made by those who believe they understand the truth. My voice is just one more in the cacophony of confusion. There’s no reason for anyone to pay any more attention to my words than to anyone else’s.

"Many years ago, in the 60’s, Art Craig gave a sermonette at the feast in Squaw Valley about “spitting into the wind.” I now believe that that’s exactly what I’ve been doing in writing my column for The Journal. It’s time to withdraw and relinquish the space to someone else."

Lord knows I've never agreed with Brian's right-wing politics, but I've always respected his good sense and balance when it comes to offering thoughtful commentary and pastoral advice to the WCG diaspora. I liked his articles way back in my own WCG days (a voice of calm amidst the shrieking and braying of "the leading ministers") and I especially valued the articles he wrote for CGI's Twentieth Century Watch in the first, optimistic months of that organization - before reality hit home with a vengeance. I've even managed to keep the May-June 1980 issue in my files (it was color magazine format in those days) mainly because of Brian's article "What is a Christian?" Although my personal understanding of that question has moved on since (as perhaps has Brian's) it was an enormous source of reassurance in those dark days when every semblance of security seemed to be crumbling on every side. So maybe now is a good time to say "thanks, Brian."

The Journal will be a poorer publication for Brian Knowles' absence. Along with Dave Havir's offerings, his columns have provided a counterpoint to the blinkered dogmatism that appears on so many other pages. As COGdom continues to dry up, the small pond becomes a puddle, and whatever breadth and generosity of spirit that once existed in the larger community seems to evaporate.

Good luck Brian. You'll be missed.

Saturday 10 June 2006

Armstrongism in drag

I finally got around to viewing the Hulme COG DVD on the apostle Paul today. David Hulme being the ex-WCG executive, ex-UCG president, currently High Poobah of his own splinter sect with an unmemorable name.

To give credit where it's due, the Lord's Anointed scrubs up well for the cameras. And he has a talent for slick PR. Hulme managed to enlist quite a lineup of experts for the program, including:

James Tabor (author of The Jesus Dynasty, former AC lecturer and a respected academic)
John Garr (spokesperson for something called the Restoration Foundation, author of several obscure books)
N.T. Wright (Anglican Bishop of Durham and British Evangelical poster-boy)
Paula Fredriksen (author of From Jesus to Christ and a very insightful commentator by anyone's standards)
John Gager (author of Reinventing Paul and a top scholar)
Craig A. Evans (another legitimate academic and author)
Amy-Jill Levine (who describes herself as a Yankee Jewish feminist, and specialises in feminist commentary on the Gospels)

Despite having all these knowledgeable people on call, along with some superb graphics, there was no disguising the fact that this was cold-COG leftovers reheated with a scholarly garnish. Hulme even trotted out the ancient Herbal chestnut about the missing decades in church history, and then the curtain rising on a new religion invented by the early church fathers (somebody should lock him in a small room with Jared Olar and a copy of Eusebius!)

It must be nice to fly around the world with a big, fat, tithe-funded media and travel budget, shooting backdrops in Antioch and posing casually in front of the Acropolis. And yes, the resulting 70-minute program looks as professional as money can buy.

There were moments of wonder. When the much maligned second century heretic Marcion was described as a Catholic bishop, for example. And when Dapper Dave stated that all adult converts to Judaism had to be circumcised (he seems to have forgotten about the 50% of the species who are female). While the experts (with the possible exception of Garr, whose credentials I'm unable to verify) said sensible things, Hulme himself was clearly on an apologetic mission for "God's law", the Sabbath and the "Church of God." Fair enough, but how on earth did he manage to convince N.T. Wright to play ball? "Excuse me Tom, but I run an exclusivist non-Trinitarian pseudo-Ebionite sect, and I'd love you to appear on a TV special I'm doing so you can make me look good..."?

Top marks for presentation, but a D for content (excepting the contributions from the scholars). Hulme is the COG leader who shows the most awareness of contemporary theology and church history, but Quest for the Real Paul amounts to little more than putting chocolate frosting on a very stale fruitcake called Armstrongism.

Friday 9 June 2006

Cult or Sect ? (Part 3) - or "It ain't half hot Gerry"

If you were Gerry Flurry, eager to entice multitudes of eager tithe-paying members to rally to your cause, how would you do it?

Sociologist Rodney Stark has studied successful conversion strategies and reached some striking conclusions. The key is often in tapping into the members' existing social networks (friends and family). Stark makes a strong case that conversion often has less to do with being convinced by doctrine than with fitting in with significant others in our lives. Often, it seems, we only really convince ourselves after making a commitment, not before.

If that seems strange, consider the testimony of a Mormon mission president. When the missionaries make "cold calls" (doorknocking strangers) they recruit one time in a thousand. But when their contact is in the home of a Mormon friend or relative, the odds go up to 50%!

Think for a moment of people you know who joined the COG movement. How often did a parent follow after a son or daughter showed the initial interest? Think about those cases when one sibling followed another into "the truth", or one spouse followed another. Each may have been fully convinced that they were individually "called" into the faith proclaimed by Herb and Ted (or Gerry or Rod...), but the reality was more complex. Do we ever really understand our own deepest motivations? Stark suggests that those with weak social networks are the most likely to be attracted to a new religious movement - witness the efforts some cults put into recruiting on campuses where young people are away from familiar faces, family and friends. My own theory is that people tend to leave sects in similar circumstances - when they've moved away from their home congregation to take on a new job for example, and suddenly have the distance to get a clearer perspective.

"Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semi-closed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out and into adjacent social networks." (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p.20)

Poor old Gerry, hell-bent on cutting off all contact between the inmates in his religious ghetto and those in "adjacent social networks" - members and ex-members of other COGs. The tragic side is in torn and bleeding relationships - friends and family separated by the PCG's barrier of fear. However, on a positive note, the contagion of intolerance is also kept at arms length by that very isolationism. No wonder PCG has failed to grow - despite slick magazines, beautiful buildings, airtime on scores of TV stations and enough hot air each week from his client-ministers to inflate a fleet of Zeppelins.

As Sergeant Major Williams used to say on the classic British comedy series "It Ain't Half Hot Mum": "Oh dear, how sad, never mind."

Wednesday 7 June 2006

Cult or Sect ? (Part 2)

And the results are:

Scientology (C) 81%
Presbyterian (D) 61%
Mormons* (-) 55%
Roman Catholic (D) 48%
Methodist (D) 46%
Assemblies of God (S) 37%
Jehovah's Witnesses (S) 23%
Worldwide Church of God (S) 10%

Which illustrates two things. Sects - like the old WCG which beat the populist drum - tend to recruit people with little formal education. But there are always exceptions (Robert Kuhn springs to mind), and it doesn't mean that most COG members are unintelligent: just that sects appeal less as educational levels rise. But look at Scientology... with 81% of members holding degrees. Sociologists have determined that these groups (cults, as described in part 1) recruit from a quite different cross section of the population - which just proves that a good education doesn't always deliver common sense.

So, in sociological terms, Herb Armstrong built a sect, not a cult. It would be nice to be able to label Flurry's PCG as a cult, if only because it sounds a lot more dangerous than sect (and it is arguably dangerous!) but PCG's pushing of conservative political and cultural buttons is a definite sectarian characteristic. There's neither originality or insight in evidence, only the beating of those same old drums again and again and again, just like an obsessively bored three-year old.

But there's good news too, great news! Flurry's PCG is heading full steam ahead into the trashbin of history, and Gerry shows no signs of hitting the brakes. In fact, Gerry is unknowingly doing all the right things to push his little sect over the cliff in a lemming drive. More on this in part three.

*Note: Mormons were placed outside the three categories as a special case.

Monday 5 June 2006

Cult or Sect ? (Part 1)

A sect is, as we all know, a moderately deviant group which we have reservations about. A cult, on the other hand, is an aggressively deviant group which may be downright dangerous. Right?

The problem with that kind of definition is that it bogs down in subjectivity. Would you describe UCG, for example, as a cult or a sect? How do you know? What about Flurry's PCG, the Living Church of God or the Missouri Lutherans?

Sociologists, bless them, have come up with a working definition that avoids all the finger pointing. Conventional churches (denominations) are low-tension in relation to the surrounding culture. Not too many demands on members - or cause to raise eyebrows at the Rotary Club. So Episcopalians (or Anglicans) fit right in (except perhaps in New Hampshire).

Sects exist in a higher state of tension with the world around them. They make greater demands on their members, and knowing that Mrs Mcgillicuddy is a Seventh-day Adventist gives you important information about what makes her tick. Sects are similar to conventional churches in lots of ways. But they put the stress on their differences (denominational distinctives) which they value above the shared features.

Cults, according to the sociologists, are of another order entirely. They share very little with the other churches and sects in society. They come in from the outside with strange, alluring ideas that are novel in the host culture. Scientology has arguably less in common with the Episcopalian church down the street than a gathering of Trekkies, and local Baptists are unlikely to find themselves attending a Moonie service by mistake.

Now, here's the interesting part. Sects seem to recruit a quite different group of people to the cults. Sixteen years ago a major survey of American religous affiliations was conducted with a large sample group. Among the things the survey asked about was educational background. So, how would you rank each of the following faiths in terms of percentage of college graduates? Try making your own list with those you think would have the highest percentage at the top, and the lowest at the bottom. They're listed here in alphabetical order. You might also like to write D, S or C beside each (for denomination, sect or cult).

Assemblies of God
Jehovah's Witnesses
Roman Catholic
Worldwide Church of God

Yes, the WCG - then still a fairly prominent player in the religious marketplace - was included. So, what percentage of college graduates do you think WCG boasted in 1990, and how did sociologists categorize them (us)?

As a bit of a clue, here are the results for 3 other religious groups:

Episcopal (D) 70%
Nazarene (S) 34%
New Age (C) 67%

Answers next time, along with a prediction about the long term viability of Six-pack Gerry's Oklahoma cult... er, sect, um, oh never mind...

(I've taken the information in this series of postings from sociologist Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity.)

Sunday 4 June 2006

Dr. Bob Bites Back

It was only a matter of hours before Bob Thiel responded to my previous entry. Courtesy of Gary Scott at XCG, the "Doctor Bob" posting attracted more attention than it otherwise might.

Bob points out that at least one of his articles is indeed extensively referenced, and I thank him for providing the link. What can we learn from Bob's selection of sources?

First, both Dugger & Dodd and the Catholic Encyclopedia were used, as predicted. The first dates back to the 1930s, while the second goes back nearly ninety five years. In fact, the bulk of Bob's references seem to be seriously dated. The earliest I noted was 1885! Most seem to be out-of-copyright material that is now available free online.

Then there are the "in-house" references: LCG booklets, Tomorrow's World magazine, one of Alan Knight's books (a hyper-fundamentalist COG7 lay member with, as far as I know, no qualifications whatsoever in this area), Samuele Bacchiocchi (who does) and the 1950s Radio Church of God Correspondence Course.

Remove the outdated stuff and the sectarian material and there's not a lot left. Even then, I wonder about some. For example Bob cites (approvingly) a passage from the Gospel of Thomas in The Complete Gospels, a volume published by the Jesus Seminar. Did he realize that?

Bob states: "My articles, as any who read them can tell, are highly documented." One article, especially with these kinds of references, is hardly convincing. Bob then switches tack and lambasts his critics: "it really does not matter much what the anti-COGers choose to believe about what I write. They have never appeared to me to be like the Bereans—they do not seem to have “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11)."

The question however is not whether his critics have read the Bible (I'm sure most of us have as good a track record as Bob) but how they read the Bible. Is it just a fundamentalist's treasure trove of proof texts (the way LCG seems to treat it) or something that requires a bit more thought and care.

Bob seems to have sidestepped my suggestion of providing a bibliography on the early church, but I'm happy to provide a brief one of my own. I've listed just 5, all of which concentrate on the first centuries. They come from a variety of perspectives, all the writers are qualified in their field, all are informed by the best current scholarship, and all (with the possible exception of Koester) are written for the non-specialist. Immerse yourself in any one of these, and I think you'll agree that Bob's apologetic approach leaves something to be desired.

Henry Chadwick. The Early Church. London, Penguin Books, Revised 1993. (A little staid, but quite comprehensive)

W.H.C. Frend. The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1984. (Very comprehensive, widely regarded as one of the best)

Laurie Guy. Introducing Early Christianity. Downers Grove, Ill. InterVarsity Press, 2004. (An informed Evangelical perspective)

Helmut Koester. History and Literature of Early Christianity. Berlin & New York, Walter de Gruyter, 2000 ed. (More radical and densely argued than most)

L. Michael White. From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries & Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith. San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2004. (Brilliant overview)

Saturday 3 June 2006

Doctor Bob

According to the latest Journal, Bob Thiel (PhD) has expanded his website to include a section on the Early Church in an effort "to portray Church of God history in a more documented and detailed light." Intrigued, as this is a particular interest I share with Bob, I clicked across to see what he had on offer.

What I found were scores of articles of - and this is my personal and somewhat biased assessment - dubious value and apologetic intent. But what really amazed me was that Doctor Bob was unable to provide a credible bibliography for any of it. No references (except for copious links to his other pages.) I don't claim to have seen everything he's written, so maybe there's an occasional mention of Dugger & Dodd or an online edition of the Catholic Enyclopedia somewhere, but overwhelmingly this is the sole work of one enthusiastic amateur with no specialist training in the field and little evidence of genuine research. But you can judge for yourself

Of course, I'm all for enthusiastic amateurs. Home gardeners for example, and an army of bloggers. But if you're going to set yourself up as an authority on early Christianity, let alone a prolific one, then you need to establish some basic credibility first. At a bare minimum you need to be well read on the subject; at least familiar with the state of the play. Simply regurgitating your own sectarian sources just doesn't cut it.

My challenge to Bob is to provide a bibliography for his site. Books he has actually read and consulted. Then we'll all be in a better position to discuss his ideas.