Saturday 26 May 2007

Dougie Mans the Ramparts

Mention "wild claims, unsubstantiated statements, false information, antiquated arguments, risky assumptions, open ridicule and erroneous conclusions" in the same breath as the LCG's Tomorrow's World mag, and you might think someone had finally wised up.

Alas, no. The words are those of Douglas Winnail in an article (May-June) entitled Religion Under Fire! where Dougie lets rip on the subject of those evil atheists and liberal Bible scholars - which he appears to confuse - in an unintentionally hilarious hissy-fit.

In Dougie's sights are Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. On the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend he cuddles up to British theologian Alister McGrath, the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics and even Josh McDowell. Whether any of these worthies would enjoy the sweaty embrace of Winnail's fringe sect is another matter!

For someone who comes from a long-line of intemperate and irreverent pulpit-pounders (HWA, GTA, Rod...) it seems a little curious when Winnail accuses Dawkins of an "intemperate and irreverent manner." Maybe he sleeps through his own sermons? He then quotes Dawkins' portrayal of the Old Testament deity as "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleaner... homophobic, racist... malevolent bully... psychotic delinquent..."
Well, that's not how I'd describe the God of the Hebrew Bible, but it certainly fits some of his Charlotte-based latter-day servants. Many of us can remember sermons that bemoaned the non-extermination of indigenous peoples who stood in "Israel's" path to empire. Intemperate? Undoubtedly, but not as intemperate as Rod Meredith's characteristic stream-of-consciousness foot-in-mouth sermon deviations. And just think back to all those cheap shots COG ministers have taken over the years at rival churches, Protestantism, Catholicism and the Jesus of popular piety. Winnail and his good buddies are past-masters of the art.

Predictably it's all another example of prophecy being fulfilled before our eyes, according to Dougie. In the Last Days scoffers will come. In an accompanying article ("Prophecy Comes Alive: Scoffers in the Last Days!") the LCG heavyweight grows expansive on this theme. Move over ye demons of atheism and make room for wicked Dr. James Tabor, "revisionist scholars" and the Q source. Dougie lets fly at these threateners of cultic comfort with some surprising rhetoric. Take this reference for example: "apocryphal writings - never accepted by the Church..."

Church? Which church? The Catholic Church? If so, why is Dougie bothered? How relevant is it to LCG whether or not "the Church" accepted or rejected anything? If the reference is to the mist-shrouded, putative apostolic Church of God, then where, dear Doug, is there any proof that it either prescribed or proscribed any particular books as canonical? The fact is, whether Doug likes it or not, that the early church used the Septuagint (LXX) which is much closer to the Orthodox and Catholic canons than his truncated New King James Version. It's also a fact that those pesky proto-Catholics decided what was going into the New Testament, not the Sabbath-keeping Jewish Christians he fantasises continuity with.

There is a counter-case to be made against the new wave of "evangelical atheists", but Winnail is doing nobody a favor by lobbing a custard pie into his own face by such ludicrous apologetics. His fulmination against genuine scholarship is an even bigger joke. It's probably a very good thing that almost nobody outside the LCG will bother to read these articles.

Wednesday 23 May 2007

Who was this man?

Randel Helms begins his myth-busting book Gospel Fictions with this puzzler:

In the first century of the Common Era, there appeared at the eastern end of the Mediterranean a remarkable religious leader who taught the worship of one true God and declared that religion meant not the sacrifice of beasts but the practice of charity and piety and the shunning of hatred and enmity. He was said to have worked miracles of goodness, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead. His exemplary life led some of his followers to claim he was a son of God, though he called himself the son of a man. Accused of sedition against Rome, he was arrested. After his death, his disciples claimed he had risen from the dead, appeared to them alive, and then ascended to heaven. Who was this teacher and wonder worker? (p.9)

John Ouvrier knows. John is, if memory serves, a former WCG minister stationed in Hawaii who led a breakaway group back in the late 1970s, temporarily dallying with the Church of God (Seventh Day) before presumably dissolving into the mists. These days John occasionally writes for The Painful Truth.

In any case, Bob Thiel (bless him!) has drawn attention to an article by John that answers Helm's question. The wonder-worker from Century One is Apollonius of Tyana.


Bob wonders who too. Scratching his noggin, Bob notes that there was an early church leader called Apollonius, but he'd be too late to fit the bill. It seems a bit strange that Bob, a self-designated authority on the Early Church, should be unaware of Apollonius of Tyana's existence. That certainly makes his attempt to refute Ouvrier look a little lame.

I found John's article interesting but flawed. He leaps well beyond the evidence (which is fascinating enough not to need flights of fancy) to some truly hair-raising conclusions. Worse, he indulges in blatantly anti-Catholic conspiracy theories (why do the equally ancient Greek Orthodox get off scot-free?) But, that said, John does us all a service by bringing Apollonius to everyone's attention. While he is well documented in the scholarly literature (which Bob must have avoided I guess), Apollonius is largely unknown in the wasteland of the pews. Bob can't have read W. H. C. Frend's monumental Rise of Christianity, a classic text which does indeed mention Apollonius. But to suggest that Jesus was Apollonius is to join the dots right off the page. Yet nobody can deny that figures sharing a great many common traits with Jesus were not exactly unknown in the first century.

There is no conspiracy to hide Apollonius' existence, at least among those who can be bothered to pick up a reliable text, but it would be fair to say that he hasn't received the attention he deserves either. Exact details surrounding his life are disputed (see the Wikipedia entry) - but that's hardly surprising when details of Jesus life are equally contested. It was a very long time ago.

Monday 21 May 2007

The Ratzinger Jesus

"The Real Jesus" was the title of Garner Ted Armstrong's 1970s book on the man from Galilee which, rather than standing the test of time, has justifiably been consigned to the rubbish heap of history. Ask an "expert" about Jesus, real (like John Dominic Crossan) or imagined (like Ted) and the portrait they'll come up with will be a remarkably convivial one - tweaked, one suspects, to their own prejudices.

No, not just Ted. The "Jesus Seminar" came up with a wise, enlightened Jesus just brimming over with liberal humanitarian values, the "Oberammergau" Jesus dripped with anti-Semitism, the KKK gathers around the bonfire to sing "The Old Rugged Cross," and so it goes. Now along comes the Lord Darth Vader himself, Joseph Ratzinger, with a new biography called Jesus of Nazareth, and it's no surprise if his Jesus also seems skewed by wishful dogma.

Ratzinger, AKA Pope Benedict XVI, has a few advantages over Ted. For starters, he's done the academic mileage, and he's not about to commit the bumbling pratfalls of a tithe-farming televangelist. But that doesn't guarantee much in itself.

If you want a stimulating, honest discussion about Jesus, ask a Jewish scholar. These guys lack the jingoistic self-interest of their Christian counterparts, and there's no-one more qualified than Geza Vermes. Here's a man who started out in life as a Hungarian Catholic, was ordained to the priesthood, become a world authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and quietly moved over into the Judaism of his forebears. It's worth sitting up and taking notice, then, when Vermes produces one of the first reviews of the Ratzinger opus. You can find it on the Times Online.

As for The Real Jesus, I've kept my copy as a curiosity. You can currently pick up your own on Amazon for the princely sum of 1c.

Saturday 19 May 2007

I'm a Philadelphian...

No, really, and here's the proof (Bob Thiel eat your heart out!)

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Northeast
Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.
The Inland North
The Midland
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Not bad for a Kiwi boy who's never been North of the equator. Should I advise Gerry that I'm ready to convert? Oh, wait, PCG isn't actually in Philly is it? Oklahoma? Maybe that's Midland? So I'm probably closer to UCG-speak in Ohio. Oh, tai hoa, UCG is moving down to Texas. Um. Okay. Y'all can try this one out for yourselves.

Friday 18 May 2007

Apocaholics revisited

A while ago I passed a comment on Gary Alexander's cryptic ad in The Journal about "Apocaholics Anonymous." I didn't know then that Alexander had set out his views over on Ken Westby's site. From raving conservative prophet of doom, Gary has become a conservative Pollyanna, convinced that nuthin is wrong and Global Warming is a myth. Thus swingeth the pendulum. He certainly hits the nail on the head, though, in retelling the stories of pessimism that swirled around Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome and other Jeremiahs that were exploited endlessly in The Plain Truth way back when. This anecdote comes from his article:

My final TV script for Garner Ted Armstrong came in 1975, when I was about to leave the cocoon of the Church of the Apocalypse for a more mundane job at the University of Southern California. He wanted a program on Global Cooling, or the Coming Ice Age. In 1975, there were several covers in major news magazines about the Coming Ice Age... One day in the control studio, Garner Ted Armstrong showed me a news clipping that pointed to the potential threat of carbon-dioxide emissions contributing to future global warming – a threat that currently assaults us in the daily media. He looked me in the eye, as his trusted researcher, and asked point blank, “Which is it – warming or cooling?” “With any luck, sir,” I quipped, “We’ll get both, and then they will offset each other.” He was not amused.

The world was a more complex place than the PT writers anticipated, and it's still a more complex place, I'll wager, than former PT writers can grasp (or thee or me for that matter.) Proof of that is in the continuing drive by crusty old curmudgeon Brian Knowles, also writing on the Westby site, to push right wing rhetoric somewhere north of Attila the Hun.

As our society lurches Left, Christians, especially conservative ones, come increasingly under fire. So do patriots, military officers, border patrol agents and others who are seeking to maintain a semblance of law and order. Incrementally, our freedoms are eroding as we morph into an increasingly socialist state.

Uh, is this America under George W. Bush that Brian is referring to? What is it with ex-PT journos? Knowles, Alexander, Dankenbring, Gentry... Has a single one of them managed to disentangle themselves from a monochrome mindset?

Oh hang on, there's always Paul Kroll... ;-)

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Greg's Dregs

I think I'm probably not all that unusual among ex-WCG members in having a hard time reconnecting to the idea of "church." In fact, truth to tell, I find the whole idea of driving off to a weekly service quite stressful, and nothing fires my indignation more than some smug, self-satisfied, Bible-toting pastor who passes judgement on non-attenders as lazy or uncommitted. Here's a recent example from the normally urbane bloggin' Baptist pastor Jim West:

Everyone who attends church has heard, and maybe even used, some excuse as to why worship couldn’t be attended. From the mysterious illness that strikes at 10 on Sunday morning but which clears up by noon so that the mall can be visited, to the sudden visitor who just dropped in as they were “leaving”; to the tiredness from a late Saturday night out; to simple laziness. And anything and everything in between, including, but not limited to, bad preaching, boring sunday school lessons, and too many other things to do.

But the real reason, the 100% always accurate reason, the authentic truth of the matter is that people stay home from worship because they don’t want to have to mend their ways or change their lives. They know, after all, that if they KNOW what God wants them to do, they will have no excuse for not doing it. So, they stay home on Sunday or they trot home after sunday school so that they can avoid the inevitable claim of God on their lives.

They don’t stay home because something more important has come up- because there is nothing more important than God. They stay home because they are afraid that God may want something of them. Namely, them.

Given that level of rhetoric it's not surprising that disaffected Christians might embrace the individualism of the Internet and a "church experience" without a church. Enter former WCG luminary Greg Albrecht and his Plain Truth Ministries. I'm not sure how Greg ended up with The Plain Truth, but it seems to be his personal play-pen these days, and he has taken it in directions antithetical not only to WCG but most other churches. Greg is now High Priest of stay-at-home Churchianity parading as liberation from religion.

I suppose I should be sympathetic, but tune in to Greg's "Christianity Without the Religion" (CWR) and you'll discover just how parasitic Albrechtism really is. Schmalzy music, online communion (BYO of course!) and bucketfuls of preacher Greg's platitudinous pontifications. This, if Greg is to be believed, is the wave of the future: Christianity minus community or commitment (but they'll take your money.) And this bloodless waffle, Greg assures us, is religion-free!

There's certainly a case for a radical rethink of the way Christians "do" church. But Albrecht's ministry is far from radical: an unappealing mix of evangelical glibness and sectarian self-absorption. Greg may extoll "Christ-centered" faith, but it seems far more Greg-centered to me.

Of course, that's just my opinion. But I'd pay good money to be see Greg lock horns with Jim West on this issue. Praise the Lord and pass the squishy tomatoes!

Addendum: How about a caption for that photo?
"Hey, check out my threads..."
"No sorry, I'd love to contribute but I left my wallet at home..."
"Hey, c'mon guys, gimme back my clerical collar..."
There's got to be better ones than those ;-)

Saturday 12 May 2007

Swear Not?

I always used to wonder why mainline Christians ignored Jesus' clear instructions in Matt. 5:33-37 about oath-taking. Here Jesus plainly forbids swearing, doesn't he? Here's the passage:

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

As a result, some Christians refuse to take oaths in a court of law, preferring to affirm. It seems they have a strong case.

But all may not be as it seems. The oaths mentioned - swearing by heaven or Jerusalem - were not taken before judges. Discover the actual context and maybe the passage will start making sense. Here's a clue from the book of Proverbs (20:14):

"Bad, bad," says the buyer,
then goes away and boasts.

Ancient Israel was a bartering society. If you wanted to buy something you were expected to haggle. The oaths in Matthew 5 are those of merchants attempting to convince a customer of the value of their goods. The context isn't about law but trading. This throws a whole new light on the text. Jesus was putting some first century entrepreneurs in their place: God's name is not an appropriate marketing tool.

I'm not sure swearing on a Bible (or even a whole stack of them) is a particularly useful thing to do. Affirmation is certainly a valid option. But nobody needs to feel worried about committing some kind of sinful deed by taking a legal oath either: that isn't what Matthew was writing about. If anyone needs to be worried it's probably the televangelists and tithe farmers who use God as a pretext to rake in the money to finance their lifestyles.

Malina, Bruce J. Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea. Westminster John Knox, 1993.

Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Fortress Press, 2003.

Friday 11 May 2007

Kiss my... ring

A long time ago in a universe far, far away I received a "ministerial visit." Big Jack brought along a taciturn deacon named Neville whose sole role was to nod occasionally, but he did all the speaking. He informed me that by asking stroppy questions I had "in effect" disfellowshipped myself. This was news to me, and a nifty strategy to shift whatever blame there might be completely to my side of the court.

I was reminded of that encounter today when I read about Papa Ratzinger's current tour of Latin America. Pope Joe has been slapping liberal Latin lawmakers around - especially those who deviate from Roman dogma on fertility issues - and threatening them with excommunication (LA Times report.) A Vatican spin doctor tried to tone down the Beaded Wonder's fulminations by explaining that such politicians had already, in fact, "excommunicated themselves."

I don't want to enter the vexed issue of abortion. I'm against it as much as any bloke who can never give birth ever can be, but I'm also against the narrow view that forbids abortion at any cost. I also firmly believe any woman has the total right to manage her own fertility without some religious cross dresser telling her otherwise. But that's beside the point. Papa Joe's minder and the Herbal apostates have this much in common - they are slippery manipulators par excellence.

Monday 7 May 2007

Off to Dallas

Word on the street - or at least on some Internet sites - is that UCG's powers-that-be have made the final decision on Dallas, and it's all steam ahead. Whatever short term benefits, the move to Texas is probably another nail in the coffin for the hope of a balanced, articulate COG body that engages brain before kneejerk. Remember what happened to that infamous "liberal" GTA after moving to the Lone Star State?

Roaming Rome-ward

Francis Beckwith, a professor at Baylor University, is president of the semi-prestigious Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). This is the place where Sabbatarian SDAs rub shoulders with dippy Dallas dispensationalists. The members include some genuinely gifted scholars and not a few complete nut cases. ETS is the best the Evangelical world can offer in Biblical Studies.

But what's this? Beckwith is stepping down and, along with his wife, entering communion with the Church of Rome! You can read his story here, or visit his own website. This should set the papal cat among the Biblicist pigeons. Who's next? Bob Thiel?

Saturday 5 May 2007

Was there a Mrs Jesus?

It's an old chestnut: was Jesus married? If so, who to? Now Dr James Tabor, one of the more illustrious WCG alumni, is offering a new argument in favor of the proposition. Tabor takes us back to the earliest Christian writings - Paul's, not the Gospels - and turns the lights up on 1 Corinthians. Why, he asks, doesn't Paul use Jesus' celibacy in his rant about the virtues of singleness?

Of course there are other explanations, some of them more unsettling than others. At the end of the day we know remarkably little about the man from Galilee, the Gospel accounts notwithstanding.

You can find Tabor's musings in his latest blog offering.

All the news that's fit to print

The latest issue of The Journal is out. Highlights:

Pam and George Dewey are hitting the road in a used RV to preach 'n teach, and The Journal poses typically COGish questions: does Pam give sermons? Should a woman be doing this stuff? Pam's replies are, as usual, to the point.

The CG7 splinter based in Meridian, Idaho, gets a mention too. It seems they've got their own unaccredited college. Maybe Rod should send Doc Germano over to see if he can fix them up...

LCG member Thomas Geiger responds to Ronald Dart's inappropriate pontifications on the Wisconsin killings. Geiger is no namby-pamby peacenik himself, he assures us. "... I am a hunter and thus join you as being a gun-toting Christian. Mr. [Carl] McNair was not a pacifist, nor am I, and I would defend my family to the death. I believe that, almost to a man, this is the way the men in the LCG and most of God’s churches are wired." No, the problem, dear Ron, is that there wasn't enough time to respond. Why Dart thought he was qualified to "armchair quarterback" on this issue is a mystery. As for the virtues of being a "gun-toting Christian" - I guess Terry Ratzmann would have heartily agreed.

The Big Sandy Church of God is developing a relationship with the El Salvador dissidents (or true believers, depending on your perspective) led by Herberth Cisneros.

You can read the front and back pages of the issue online.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Saint Ted

Ikons have never been a big deal in the WCG, in fact quite the contrary. So it's nice to know that this venerable piece of religious art endures. And somehow it's appropriate that it was gifted to us by Penthouse magazine.

Yes, this is the lead page to a feature article from thirty years ago, April 1977. My, how time flies. Thanks to Bill F. who forwarded a PDF version of "Reverend Doom."

He’s heard and seen by more Americans each week than Walter Cronkite. His magazine has more subscribers than Newsweek.

The silverhaired, silver-tongued talker is fast becoming an American institution, with far more spiritual clout than that of almost any other religious leader. He is late-night companionship to thousands of truckers, the voice of the morning to millions of farmers, the living-room preacher to a subculture of lonely, frightened, disoriented Americans. He is even better known in Canada, where the airwaves are saturated with his television and radio broadcasts.

Hard to imagine now. Within a year of the article's appearance Ted was fired and disfellowshipped.

But aside from its news reports, The Plain Truth is largely a right-wing propaganda outlet.

Perceptive! Pick up a copy of the most recent GN, TW or Flurry's Trumpet and... snap!

Martin E. Marty, professor of the history of modern Christianity at the University of Chicago, says of the Armstrong phenomenon: ... Sects like Armstrong's probably drain off discontent into harmless channels among people who might be more dangerous without Armstrong's alternative view of history to grasp onto. This kind of religion makes elites out of the ignorant and the poor.”
Religious bromide for the unwary. Marty always was a smart cookie.

So two questions. First, how come America's most lecherous publication was able to see the true nature of WCG so much more clearly than the righteous brethren within (including yours truly)?

And second, do you reckon as a tribute to Dad, Mark Armstrong has a copy of that artwork hanging up in his office at ICG HQ (or failing that, a copy of the current Penthouse in his desk drawer)?