Monday 25 June 2007

Spit or Whistle?

Yes, if those thinning pates and grey hairs of wisdom are any indication, the COG demographic is sliding inexorably toward elder-status, and in this case elder comes without ordination credentials. In a generation the numbers will be heading on the downhill slide past the point of no return. Indeed, I think I saw the milestone a few kilometres back... but maybe it was a millstone instead. The brash, vital, growing Worldwide Church of God of yester-year only lives on in our memories and nightmares.

But wait, misery loves company, and its comforting to know that COGism is far from alone. Across The Ditch in the fabled land of Oz, the mainline Australian denominations (Catholic, Anglican and Protestant) have been involved in something called the 2006 National Church Life Survey (NCLS). It's full of the usual pacifying pabulum, such as:

There has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of attenders who are aware of their church's vision, goals and directions.

Uh huh... very inspiring if fuzzy around the edges. But before breaking out the grape juice and marinated tofu, consider this Ocker shocker:

A matter of concern is that the average age of church members is going up. It is now...

Take a guess. The average Aussie church goer is, what, in their late forties maybe?

... 53 years.

I nearly let out a whoop. I'm still a youngster! Well, only barely, but I'll take whatever slack I can get!

Mind you, that's Australia, and my guess is that the Kiwi average age is higher. The USA seems, as always, a little different, but in the rest of the English speaking world Christianity is in deep trouble, and it's probably the author of its own misfortunes. I'm mean, take the Anglicans ... please, someone, anyone!

Religions pass their use-by date, and WCG's was probably 1975. On the macro scale Christianity itself has a problem, and circling the wagons fundamentalist-style is a bit like spitting in the wind.

Meanwhile, the mainline churches are - if not spitting - bravely whistling in the dark.

National director of NCLS Research Keith Castle writes, 'Perhaps the church in Australia is moving beyond the sense of despair that has permeated its life (particularly in the mainstream churches) for possibly two decades. I see glimpses of a new determination to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in creative and relevant ways in this complex society in which we live.'

Translation: I'm fresh out of ideas; is it time to panic?

NCLS Research: weblink
Quotes from Brian Schwarz, "Vital Signs", The Lutheran, June 2007.

Sunday 24 June 2007

Jesus, Paul and Sex

Have a gander at James Tabor's latest blog entry, where he launches out into a feisty discussion of dualism, sex and the New Testament. To say the least, interesting questions are raised. Enough here, one might fear, to bring on an angina attack for some good folk who feel more anxious than adventurous when it comes to religious security. Those of us who appreciate the spill, splatter and swish of blood from sacred bovines, however, may well let out a hearty cheer.

And to think that James used to fill in by taking classes for "Doc" Meredith when the "leading evangelist" was away from Pasadena...

Saturday 23 June 2007

Rated PG

Alas, AW has been rated PG. The only consolation is that my favorite bete noire, Doc Thiel, has received the same rating. Children (in the unlikely event that any actually read this blog) should leave now, unless accompanied by a responsible adult (which probably excludes any of you who belong to PCG.)

The squeaky clean Gary Scott, despite calling his excellent blog XCG, snatches a G rating, as does Felix Taylor. Excuse me while I go sob in a corner...

In any event, for those few readers who don't already realise it, the main Thiel newspage has been bloggered. Good move Dr. Bob. You'll always learn something new there, such as the astounding fact that ye olde Rise and Fall historian Edward Gibbon (not Gibbons, sorry Bob) wasn't a COG member, gasp! Now I ask you, where else would you find an assurance to that effect?

Friday 22 June 2007

The Plain Truth and the Judas Gospel

April DeConick is a professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University and a mighty fine blogger as well. In a recent entry she mentions a certain magazine:

Professor Tim Finlay (Azusa Pacific University) has just published a brief but detailed article on the Gospel of Judas in The Plain Truth. Most of his analysis is fairly accurate... but I have to dissent on his conclusion that the Gospel of Judas "confirms that Irenaeus and the early Church were right in what they said about the non-canonical Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John remain peerless from both theological and historical perspectives."

Why do these conclusions continue to be drawn by biblical scholars, as if the canonical gospels are any more accurate (or "peerless") theologies and histories than the non-canonical gospels? All these texts are theologies, and whether or not they are "peerless" depends upon where you are standing. None of our texts are histories, let alone accurate histories. And how much historical information we can actually reap out of any of them, and the procedures for doing so, are questions more problematic than not.

As for the accuracy of the Church Fathers' descriptions... [they] passed on false information, ill-informed interpretations, and fabricated stories in their struggle against those forms of Christianity that they hated. As the old saying goes, "All is fair in love and war."

Straight talk: gotta love it!

Finlay is a former AC graduate. While on the subject of women scholars (last time Amy-Jill Levine, today April DeConick), this coming Thursday I'm planning on attending a lecture by American Lutheran theologian (ELCA) Kathryn Tanner. Tanner's interests fall outside my reading and study experience thus far (Christianity and economics) but it should be a stimulating presentation. Remember the days (if you're old enough!) when a woman's by-line was not permitted in the Plain Truth or Good News? Now the intellectual strength of women writers and scholars is commonplace - and even the dowdy old WCG has ordained women elders.

I, for one, am enormously grateful for the winds of change.

Monday 18 June 2007

Amy-Jill Levine

Tonight I attended a public lecture at Auckland University given by New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, currently on a tour Down Under. Levine is a joy to listen to, and a highly distinctive voice in the field (and I don't just mean the New York accent!)

For a start, she is a member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. Most New Testament scholars are of course professing Christians, but invariably exude a dour Calvinism, a mixture of apologetics and thin-lipped worldly denial. Jewish teachers don't seem to have that problem. While Catholics and Protestants tend to wallow in the awful sinfulness of it all, the Jewish view is generally far more optimistic, mercifully lacking the concept of original sin. I swear that you could tell the Presbyterians in the audience: they were the ones who didn't get the humor!

In the fundagelical camp there are those (usually devotees of the arcane discipline of "systematic theology") who suffer under the illusion that only Christians (i.e. their kind of Christian) can have anything relevant to contribute to theological discussion. Levine gives the lie to that myth. The church was conceived within first-century Judaism, inspired by a Jewish prophet, spread abroad by a Jewish apostle. Levine, who works tirelessly to emphasise the essential Jewishness of Jesus and his message, asks the kind of questions that bring us closer to the "real Jesus" than most Christian scholars are capable of. Being outside the fold, so to speak, means she can afford to be honest and direct. The denominational hacks who dominate the field could learn a lot from people like Levine. Her recent book The Misunderstood Jew is not to be missed. It's a sensitive, respectful look at Jesus through Jewish eyes, minus the Christian schmaltz, which makes it a uniquely valuable contribution.

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Just what do you mean - Affiliated?

Bob Thiel is shocked, shocked!

Brian Knowles once wrote for the Plain Truth. But now is affiliated with ACD, a unitarian group. It is shocking, to me at least, that CG7 would include an article in one of its publications from one who apparently does not believe that Jesus is God.
Leaping to conclusions is the exercise form of choice for many old-time COGgers, and this seems a perfect example of the sport.

(1) Brian once wrote for the PT. Very true. In fact, he was the editor as I recall it, and one of the best that publication ever had.

(2) But now he's "affiliated" with ACD. Well, he writes commentaries at Ken Westby's invitation, and contributes to their blog. If that's what "affiliated" means, I guess that's true. Does he receive a salary from Ken? I very much doubt it. I assume Brian knows Ken from way back, and it's highly doubtful Brian had to sign a unitarian article of faith before his material was cleared. Brian wrote for The Journal too (basically the same articles that appeared on ACD), does that make him "affiliated" there as well? But, shock, horror! Bob has also written for The Journal, does that mean Bob is "affiliated"? I can sense the need for Bob to write a new, very long and ungrammatical article of explanation for his website: Just what do you mean... Affiliated?
(3) ACD is a unitarian group. I have no idea if ACD has a board, or who else is involved in running the group, or even if it is much of a group. It started out as the Associated Churches of God, then downsized to something more manageable. Ken Westby is now a Biblical Unitarian, as are a number of other ex-COG worthies including Charles Hunting and Sir Antony Buzzard. Neither Hunting nor Buzzard are ACD "affiliated" as far as I know, though they may be involved in some of the One God seminars. Nor have I ever read anything by Brian Knowles that suggests he is of that persusion. Having opinion pieces on Ken's site doesn't make someone a unitarian anymore than having an article in the Bible Advocate makes one a binatarian.

(4) Bob is shocked that the BA would publish an article by someone who doesn't believe that Jesus is God. Actually there's a long Arian strand to COG7 theology, though it seems to have died out in recent decades. Dugger and Dodd were very complimentary about Arianism. COG7 also publishes articles by Trinitarians from time to time.

But what I want to know is, how does Bob know that Brian denies Jesus' divinity. Has Brian written that somewhere? Has Bob interviewed Brian and asked him? Or is Bob just leaping from vine to vine in the jungle, yodelling Tarzan cries and pounding his chest. Supposition is hardly evidence Dr. Thiel.

Bob qualifies his comments with the word "apparently." I'm not sure how he finds it "apparent" though. Maybe he can enlighten us.

As a matter of fact, I'd be delighted to hear Brian's views on the question of Jesus' nature. Whether you agree with the man or not, he's usually worth reading because (unlike certain LCG writers) he actually has taken the time to think issues through.

The Church of God (Seventh Day) deserves to be complimented on the range of writers it draws on. LCG could learn a lot from their lack of anal dogmatism. Brian's articles have appeared in the BA before, and hopefully will again. After all, he shares a common tradition with the Denver-based church, and he's a fine writer to boot...

At least when he steers clear of politics. ;-)

Monday 11 June 2007


I'm currently reading John Shelby Spong's latest book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. Spong (not to be confused with former WCG minister Grant Spong) is an interesting chap. Despite being a retired Episcopal bishop of the liberal persuasion, his roots are fundamentalist, and that shows in his style of writing which beats around no bushes and pulls no punches. Whatever else this book may be, wishy-washy it isn't.

Several years ago Bishop Spong toured New Zealand and I was dragged along to hear him by a relative. I'm glad I went. I've read almost everything he's published, and hugely respect his raw honesty. Spong, unlike most of the bland, anemic types in mainline Christian leadership, is a scrapper. Lord knows the liberal church needs a lot more like him.

For many fundagelicals Spong is the devil incarnate as he threatens to toss out their much loved "treasure trove of beddy-bye stories" (to recall a memorable expression I once heard Garner Ted Armstrong use.) In this latest book he sets about to systematically deconstruct the Jesus of popular imagination, and by golly, he does a pretty thorough job. He also demonstrates quite conclusively that the gospel accounts are anything but literal history. Others have gone this way before, but they usually pussyfoot around lest offence be taken (and church funds dry up!), their work dying the death of a thousand qualifications.

People can respond to challenges like Spong's in one of two ways. They can circle the wagons and throw up a stockade of denial. Or they can look the challenge in the eye and deal with it with integrity. That may mean some painful growth but, what the heck, better to deal with reality than hide among the fluffy pillows and proof texts of self-deception. After the usual dose of bland confections doled out by the run-of-the-mill Bible-babblers and conformist clergy, Spong is like a fiery Indian curry. Be sure and have a large pitcher of cold water handy.

Thursday 7 June 2007

Samuel and Saul, Pt.3

The issue in 1 Samuel 15 is a genocidal God. It takes special pleading to retrieve some decency from this disturbing tale, and the fact that some people even try indicates that their bibliolatry has long since moved beyond harmless wackiness into an apologetic for evil.

If we can cross our fingers and whistle through passages like this, what else will we ignore? They brought it on themselves? They were immoral? God has the right to take the life he has created? One is reminded of the advice the papal legate gave to the commander of the assault on the city of Beziers in 1209. How, the officer asked, are we to distinguish between the good Catholics and the wicked Cathars when we take the city? The legate reportedly replied: Kill them all, for God knows his own.

It is in revulsion to that kind of obvious evil that many of us fled from mainline Christianity to find something finer, more idealistic and truer in a sectarian community like the Worldwide Church of God. That quest may have ultimately proved a delusion, but the question remains: how can we make sense of sociopathic prophets like Samuel?

Some comfort might be found in the discovery that the historical books of Judges through Kings are relatively late creations, known to scholars as the Deuteronomistic History. The consensus is that they were created around the sixth century BCE, and that many of the events they relate are pure fiction. Not that most scholars were keen on the idea at first, but the archaeology of Israel just doesn't support the stories. Jerusalem was, for example, not a great city at the time David and Solomon were alive and the text is full of anachronisms such as the armour Goliath is described as wearing. At best David was a local warlord and Solomon a relatively minor figure. Saul? Who knows. A historical figure may well underlie the stories, just as real institutions like Opus Dei and the Louvre appear in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. But history it is not, and nor are the Deuteronomist's accounts. The idea of history as an objective retelling of the past was still far in the future when 1 Samuel was written, or Homer's Odyssey for that matter.

The Samuel stories are, however, powerful narrative, and Saul is a tragic character: arguably the only truly tragic character in biblical literature. The man who is singled out - against his own will - for the honor of being Israel's first king, is again singled out as the enemy of God, rejected without hope of redemption, tormented with an evil spirit from the hand of Yahweh. The shy young man who hides from the kingmaker is fated to die, along with all his descendants, and be replaced by a brigand, protection racketeer, adulterer, mercenary and murderer who - in the final insult - will be described by the Deuteronomist as "a man after God's own heart."

For Saul it is, to say the least, tough luck. Reading these books in a literal, fundamentalist sense is to feel the need to call evil good. But on another level they are an invitation to grapple with some pretty intense issues, and that, I believe, is their abiding genius.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Return of the Jedi

A short break from the Samuel/Saul series to reflect on the religious state of the nation, as caught in the last census.

I have to add that I'm talking about the 2006 New Zealand census here. Any resemblance between Kiwi religiosity and Uncle Sam's is, I suspect, purely coincidental.

Firstly, the imperious Anglicans are in freefall. In this little nation of four million, that church is now down under 600,000. That doesn't surprise me, having read three books recently about the contemporary Church of England. Simply stated, they're seriously screwed up. The Catholic numbers are drawing level, and one suspects that their commitment factor is vastly higher (even in Blighty there are more Catholics in church on Sunday than Anglicans). The Presbyterians barely scrape 400,000.

Having put the boring old conformist sects to one side, the second-rankers provide more interesting fare. A mere 56,913 Baptists - still ahead of the Mormons (43,539). Wicked, depraved persons who wrote "Jedi" as their religion (20,241 of them!) outnumber Jehovah's Witnesses, Exclusive Brethren, Jews, Sikhs and Rastafarians.

The Dominion Post article which I've used as a source hasn't bothered with outer fringe groups like the WCG, but I'd say they're out-light-sabred by the Jedi by at least 40 to 1.

Lutherans in the US outnumber the Episcopalians last I heard (even if a few million belong to deviant groups like the Missouri and Wisconsin synods). Here Lutherans are lucky to reach 5,000, and the DomPost article ignores them altogether. However no less than 1.3 million New Zealanders described themselves as non-religious last year, the fastest growing "faith" in the land.

May the Force be with them all.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Samuel and Saul, Pt. 2

Right, says Samuel, the Eternal has spoken. Saul, get yourself down to the city of the Amalekites and kill everybody. Why? Because we have a grudge that goes back generations. Show no mercy, not even to the kids and babies, Yahweh says exterminate! Capisce?

Welcome to 1 Samuel 15.

Now Saul is still new to the job, but he takes the initiative. Maybe I have to slaughter those poor sods, he thinks, but there are Kenites in that settlement too, and Moses' father-in-law was a Kenite...

So Saul surrounds the town and sends word out: Kenites may leave! One imagines that they hot-footed out of there quick smart.

Then there's the bloodbath. Men, women, little children. Dachau would have looked mild by comparison. Everyone dies in pools of their own blood and feces except the king, a gentlemen by the name of Agag. Saul's intentions toward Agag are unclear because interfering old Samuel arrives on the scene before we can find out. Remember, it's Samuel who has commanded this atrocity in Yahweh's name.

Saul sets up a victory stele to commemorate the glorious smite-fest, and greets the prophet (who arrives after the deed is done) with the words "I have carried out the command of Yahweh."

Samuel is a narrow, rigorous soul with monochrome vision. Saul interpreted his (or Yahweh's - same thing apparently) command, keeping Agag aside and reserving the best of the Amalekite herds to sacrifice to the Eternal. Not good enough, shrieks Samuel, who proceeds to throw one of his famously thunderous hissy-fits. Saul confesses his error like a naughty schoolboy, and begs the crusty old drama-queen to "worship the Eternal" alongside him so he will not be shamed in front of his men. Most modern translations imply that Samuel then relents and does so, but Hebrew scholar Robert Alter (The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel) blows the whistle and explains that the thrust of the passage is that Samuel walked away in a huff leaving Saul to look like an idiot. Mercy and forgiveness (or even common courtesy) are beyond the scope of the seer's fanaticism.

Check out verse 29: "the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he" (says Samuel) is not a mortal, that he should change his mind."
Which is pretty weird considering that he has indeed changed his mind according to both verse 11 and verse 35 in this same chapter!

But, as Alfred E. Neuman says, "what me worry?" Someone who should worry though is Agag, who emerges with either "mincing steps" (Alter) or "haltingly" (NRSV), depending on which translation you prefer. Either way, his highness is about to become mince.

"And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal."

No quick and merciful death this. Agag is ritually butchered, dismembered, all - incredibly - to please Yahweh, by the very hand of Yahweh's franchise holder.

Some commentators go all gooey over the idea that Samuel was truly fond of Saul, and was heartbroken at his "rebellion" (Robert Cohn's article in the HarperCollins commentary speaks of Samuel's "abiding love for Saul.") Poppycock. Samuel was a vindictive power tripper par excellence who would make the late Ayatollah Khomeini (or possibly even David C. Pack) look like a fuzzy liberal.

But did it really happen? The story is gruesome, but so is Hansel and Gretel. Are we dealing with history here, or something else. And could this series turn into a twenty-first century version of Basil Wolverton's Bible Story? Well, clearly it's a no to the last question, but the others will be tackled next time!

Monday 4 June 2007

Samuel and Saul, Pt.1

If anyone ever got a rough deal in the Bible it was Saul.

You know the story. Saul is a young, tall dude from the tribe of Benjamin who sets off after some missing asses and has the misfortune to catch the jaundiced but roving eye of the prophet Samuel. Before he knows it, Samuel has him oiled up as king (1 Sam. 10:1). But Saul has a self esteem problem, clearly not your typical despot, and he hides! Too bad he didn't flee to Egypt, he'd have avoided a lot of strife.

Samuel was the Roderick C. Meredith of his age: he just didn't know when to retire. After crowning Saul he didn't go off on an extended vacation and let the young king settle in. Samuel had his hands locked on the steering wheel of state, and he wasn't about to let go.

Which brings us to 1 Samuel 13. The prophet has told Saul to gather his army and wait seven days, then the Presiding Evangelist will make a grand entrance, perform a sacrifice, and the Israelites will have a glorious victory at the expense of their enemies.

Time passes, seven days in fact. No sign of Samuel. The troops are starting to slip away. They know that you can't possibly go into battle without an auspicious sacrifice: no Samuel, no sacrifice, no victory. What's worse, the enemy has already gathered and they're ready to rumble. Saul is beside himself, what can he do?

Well obviously, he's the king, so he does what David will later do (2 Sam. 6:17), he gathers up the sacred steak knives and performs the sacrifice himself.

Uh oh, here comes Samuel, and he's definitely looking unhappy.

So now the tantrum. Why didn't you (Saul) obey the Eternal's commandment?

Why? Well actually I did. I waited seven days just like you asked bub, but you dragged your feet while the army started to desert. What would you have liked me to have done? And anyway, who says it was the Eternal's command? You gave me the instruction - you never said nuthin' about Yahweh back in chapter 10 verse 8.
Of course, that's not how Saul actually responds. He's too nice a guy, overawed by the haggard old seer and, frankly, not given to the level of smooth deceit or guile that his usurper, David, will be able to drool off at the drop of a tin dagger. Saul is no politician.

And this is the beginning of the end for Saul. He's rejected. Tough break. It doesn't seem to occur to him that Samuel might need to meet with a little accident (big funeral, nice tribute, problem solved.) Duplicity isn't in his nature.

Hey wait, you say, what about chapter 15?

That's the focus of Part 2.