Tuesday 30 October 2007

Have a Herbaceous Halloween

The reason for the season... a different version of the photograph that appeared a few days back (click to enlarge)

Wednesday 24 October 2007

A Flurry of foolishness

People all over the world are following the news of the fires ravaging Southern California. Disasters like this have a terrible impact on people's lives. You'd think nobody would think to use events like this to manipulate and finger-point. Unfortunately there are bible-quoting vultures circling, eager to find an edge and offload their hateful ideology on vulnerable individuals.

"Catastrophic wildfires, multi-year droughts, out-of-control deficits. Why is this happening to the Golden State? The answer will surprise you."
Gerry ("That Prophet") Flurry

Wicked Californians! Wicked!

The Romans only crucified Jesus, but you BAD Californians attacked Herbert W. Armstrong.

Do you know how naughty that was?

If not, Gerry Flurry will explain it to you. Gerry can do that because he's a prophet. Not just any old garden variety of prophet, mind you, but THAT prophet...

Boy, are you Californians in deep manure!

Which is why the grumpy old Deity keeps throwing His toys out of the crib in your general direction. We're talking FIRE here. You Californians deserve it because, after all, God is never wrong, and God is clearly hosed off. Gerry knows: he's got the inside word.

It might help if Arnie wears sackcloth, throws dust in the air and weeps at Herb's grave. Think of it as additional insurance against acts of the Almighty.

Here's how That Prophet puts it: "California is the only state that ever attacked Mr. Armstrong and his work. Actually, it attacked a lot more than that. California really attacked the living God! It also attacked its only hope—a hope beyond what mankind can even imagine! Could such an unjustified attack by the state have anything to do with California’s problems in the last several years? It certainly does, and you need to know why."
Yes, you guys ATTACKED GOD. What were you thinking?! No matter that it was decades ago, and some of you weren't even born then, Gerry's god has a long memory and He isn't big on the forgiveness and compassion thing.

Prophet Gerry's article explains it all, except for the one thing I most wanted to know: how come his god is such a vicious jerk.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Accurate labelling

(Click picture to enlarge)

Here be dragons

One of the interesting features in the continuing development of Joe Tkach's WCG is an emerging infatuation with the theology of Karl Barth. Barth is required reading for a course on Pastoral Theology taught by Russell Duke via ACCM, and the Swiss Reformed theologian seems to be much gushed-about at present by those attempting to gain profile in the Tkach ministry.

Barth was arguably an extremist among Protestants in that he denied that anything could be known about God outside revelation. If you imagine you can find a sense of God in a fantastic sunset or in holding a newborn child, Barth would slap you silly while shrieking NEIN! None other than Martin Luther King expressed reservations about this approach, though in more considered terms:

...Barth proclaims the utter separation of the high God and the world. The two are totally unlike and exclusive. At no point does God touch the external world with its corrupted nature and evil matter. No part of the world is, therefore, a manifestation or revelation of the infinite, majestic Deity. Barth's God is "above us, above space and time..."

King very sensibly takes issue with Barth.

A signal proof that God reveals himself in nature is seen in Psalms 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God, etc." The New Testament writers are even more explicit at this point. According to Paul, man through reason, may have sufficient knowledge of God to render him "inexcusable." This passage, found in the Epistle to the Romans, is practically ignored by Barth. He says: "We know that God is the one whom we do not know and this not-knowing is the problem and origin of our knowing..." (source)

Barth also gave birth to that bizarre idea that Christianity is not a religion. Long before Greg Albrecht turned it into a money making ministry, this giant of Reformed (Calvinist) scholarship had decided to ignore the accepted meaning of religion as something non-sectarian and positive - the sense it's used in James 1 (pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction...) and redefine it. After Barth every world-hating air-headed preacher and his brother would blather something about religion being human idolatry while their particular form of Christianity was something quite different. How convenient.

All our attempts to reach God are defined as religion [by Karl Barth], and against religion stands God's act of revelation. Here began the fight against the use of the word "religion" in theology. (Paul Tillich)

Barth is frequently lauded as the greatest theologian of the last century. A dissenting view might be that he is simply the most over-rated. Certainly he gained great credibility in his opposition to the vile compliance of the German churches to the Nazi regime, but so did many others, some of whom, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paid with their lives. Barth's opposition was not based on human rights however, but on the rigidities of his theology. Human concerns took a back seat to systematic theology. Paul Tillich notes that it was only when the National Socialists posed a threat to the churches that Barth spoke up. Earlier attacks on Jews and minorities were ignored - a fault that certainly wasn't his alone.

Much of Barth's popularity probably lies in his rejection of liberal theological trends, which caused conservative Protestants of the time not a few ulcers, but beware the cure that is worse than the disease. These days Barth is perhaps seen as the way ahead for WCG to embrace a better quality of evangelicism. Maybe, but maybe not. The internal logic of this kind of dogma is built with little reference to wider concerns of the world at large; after all, the Barthian God is not revealed anywhere except in Christian truth (however that is defined - the great man was not a biblical literalist). Barth may well be a dead end, or even worse, down this road there may well "be dragons."

Sunday 21 October 2007

The Plain Truth about Daniel's prophecies

Remember those lurid illustrations in The Plain Truth showing the beasts of Daniel's visions? The Ambassador College art department seems to have had a minor cottage industry going producing those for the publications and telecast. Remember the apologetics that went with the articles? Fulfilled prophecy - proof of the Bible's inspiration! Every detail fulfilled on schedule - making those things yet to occur certain: the more sure word of prophecy.

In fact, one of the first "reprint articles" I remember receiving, as a gawky, naive teenager, was something by Herman Hoeh (if memory serves) on the 2300 days of Daniel. I knew it had to be right because it made no sense at all - Dr. Hoeh's genius was so much more powerful than my poor ability to understand things too wonderful for me.

You can still find clone articles - complete with lurid illustrations - courtesy of the splinter groups. Prophecy marches on!

But, bear in mind the following data:

* Daniel says that Cyrus succeeded Darius

* That Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar

* That Darius the Mede conquered Babylon

So what? Well...

* Darius actually succeeded the son of Cyrus

* Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus

* Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon (there was no such person as Darius the Mede)

It's gaffes like those that have led scholars to date the composition of the book to long after Daniel's alleged lifetime in the 500s BCE. Internal evidence suggests that the real author cooked the book in the 160s BCE.

In 9:2 Daniel is puzzled by a reference in the book of Jeremiah stating that Jerusalem would lie in ruins for seventy years (Jer. 25:11). The angel Gabriel fortuitously drops by to explain that it really means seventy weeks of years. Here beginneth the proud tradition among apocalyptic types of textual "nip 'n tuck" to retread failed prophecies.

In living memory we've had to deal with all kinds of off-the-wall speculation about the time of the End. 1972 anybody? The assumption is that the Bible holds the answer in some form of secret code not to be revealed till the End Time. The reality is that the author of Daniel, living in the age of the Maccabean revolt, simply made it up, leaving later generations (including the author of Revelation) to try and explain away the inconvenient fact that he got it all terribly wrong.

Notice what the introductory notes to Daniel in the The HarperCollins Study Bible say:

The book appearing under the name of Daniel is actually by an unknown author... The name of such a wise and legendary figure was probably chosen to enhance the text. The stories about Daniel in chs. 1-6 have a legendary character and are clearly fictitious.

And again:

The portrayal of Daniel as a Jewish exile in Babylon creates a literary setting in the sixth century BCE... The literary setting is not, however, the setting in which the book was actually written. The fact that ch. 11 obviously refers to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid ruler from Syria, makes it clear that the book took its final form during Antiochus's persecution of the Jews... The inaccurate description of the end of Antiochus's reign and of his death indicates that the book was finished before these events of 164 BCE.

The Jewish Study Bible concurs:

The book of Daniel, probably written in its final version in 164 BCE, is probably the latest composition of the Hebrew Bible... The anonymous author thus uses the period of the exile as a setting to address the challenging issues of Jews living under foreign kings.

Daniel could be described as a colorful inspirational novel, but it's got zero predictive value.

Monday 15 October 2007

A better Armstrong

It won't go down well with Southern Baptist or Missouri Synod leaders, and even less so will Karen Armstrong's brilliant new book, The Bible: A Biography (British/Australian editions: On The Bible), be received with shouts of "hosanna" and glowing reviews in The Good News. At least I suspect not, but that's to be expected.

As by one Armstrong delusion descended on the world, so by another Armstrong light breaks forth. But who enjoys a beam of light being focused down on their dark, damp hiding hole? No, it's unlikely the lads at the next LCG ministerial pow-wow will be passing this book around.

Karen Armstrong's book is (despite a poorly selected cover on the American edition) the most straight-forward, lucid explanation of how the Bible originated that I've seen. In only eight chapters the reader is taken on a tour of what we actually now know about the Bible's beginnings and development, not what the Sunday morning popularizers and church functionaries would like you to think. Those wedded to an evangelical or orthodox understanding of scripture will meet here between two covers all the fearsome monsters they'd rather ignore - and if knowledge is power, I guess they'll be empowered to know the worst. For those who recoil from the literalism of the proof-texting preachers, here will be found a measure of liberation and exhilaration. The truth shall make you free.

Of course, other readers may be less entranced than I was, and immediately want to circle the wagons. Some will be repelled and offended, but maybe it's better to live in the demanding freedom of the real world than the comforting security of a self-imposed prison cell.

The Bible: A Biography is a key to the door, and an invitation to leave the dungeon. Will it cause anyone to abandon faith? Not any faith that's worth having. This is not an attack on faith, but it poses a real threat to idolatry: the idolatry that makes the scriptures into something they were never intended to be.

I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Travail of the Rodomites

An email from a kindred observer of the COG scene arrived today, drawing attention to this little gem of exhortation to the dumb sheep from LCG's Dougie Winnail.

Guidelines for the Feast of Tabernacles (CONDENSED from the September 6 issue of The World Ahead)

To Be Read in All Churches

Beach Parties—Appropriate Swimwear Guidelines

The Living Youth Camp swimwear policy has been adopted for LCG Festival sites. Appropriate attire for women is a modest one-piece suit; men should wear boxer style trunks. Two-piece outfits for women and “Speed-o” type bathing suits for men are not acceptable.
Dance Guidelines

1. All music must be chosen carefully with the approval of the Festival Coordinator or an individual he specifically assigns this task.

2. No “free-style” dancing is permitted.

3. Fellows should politely ask a young lady or woman to dance, i.e.: “May I have this next dance?” If the lady accepts, he should offer his arm to lead her out to the dance floor. When the dance is over, he should lead her back to her table or chair.

4. We discourage “pairing off” of teens at our Church-sponsored dances and encourage dancing with many partners, particularly noting who sat out the last dance. Older singles and engaged couples who are of age may be exempt from this rule.

5. Music should not be so loud that those who prefer not to dance have a difficult time carrying on a conversation.

6. Lighting should not be turned down so low that the average person could not read a book with ease.

7. At any dance organized primarily for youth, all parents are welcome to visit.

8. Appropriate dress for a Church dance in the northern hemisphere is slacks, coat and tie for adult and young men and modest knee-length dress or long gown for adult and young women.

9. A minister should be present for the entire function.

10. Small children should be supervised and not allowed to run or engage in horseplay.
These rules and traditions should apply for all our ballroom dances, because they are based upon godly principles of love toward others. Some of these rules obviously do not pertain to square dances, barn dances and dances in other cultures.
I guess it's a mercy to know that Rod and Dougie will be refraining from wearing speedos at the poolside, but beyond that, as the correspondent states: "Sounds almost solidly like the old rules from back in the '60s and '70s. And please note the most important one: A minister must be present for the entire function. Whatever else might have changed within loyalist Armstrongism over the years, one thing that hasn't is that lay people cannot be trusted. Aren't you glad you're out of that crap?"

Sunday 7 October 2007

Apocryphal Thoughts

It's not only Bob Thiel who can write detailed articles, and the nice thing about Jared Olar's offerings is that he actually knows what he's talking about. Over at Doug Ward's Grace & Knowledge Jared provides a useful two part backgrounder on those pesky books that you won't find in your standard 66 book Protestant Bible, no matter how hard you search. Appropriately Jared, a former WCG member now in the embrace of Rome, has entitled them Just What Do You Mean ... Apocrypha.

Friday 5 October 2007

Lutheran hagiography

I came across Paul McCain's name the other day in Discovering the Plain Truth by Nichols and Mather, a sympathetic account of WCG's "reformation" written back in 1998 by two pastors of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. It was, overall, a fair presentation, and I was struck by the authors' concern, expressed directly to the Pasadena cabal of Tkach, Albrecht and Feazell, about the church's continuing hierarchical ("episcopal") structure. They were fobbed off with wishy-washy assurances that things were under review. Nearly a decade later, as far as I can tell, there hasn't been any substantive change, or have I missed the announcement about the church's board now being elected rather than appointed?

Paul McCain, currently a high ranking Missouri Synod apparatchik at that body's publishing house, was apparently instrumental in setting up a meeting between Tkach and then LCMS president Al Barry. Joe and co. initially got along famously with the lads from St. Louis, though I suspect the relationship is a bit chillier these days.

I mention McCain because he's one of those bloggers I love to hate. Paul regularly takes sideswipes at Anglicans, Catholics, ELCA Lutherans, Calvinists... anyone, I suspect, who isn't infected with that peculiar brand of near-fundamentalist Lutheranism that is endemic to the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods. LCMS folk may object to the fundamentalist label, but it's undeniable that they were a big factor in the rise of creationism in the US (along with the Seventh-day Adventists.) Last time I checked, Concordia Publishing House was still promoting the 1950s book The Flood by Alfred Rehwinkel (which I had on my shelf as a pre-WCG teenager) which attempts to prove that the geological record can be accounted for by Noah's flood (about as logical as classifying Evan Almighty as a documentary.)

On his blog McCain is now promoting a new website, created by Concordia, that takes kitsch to a new level. From the faux-1930s artwork on the main page, reminiscent of political posters in Nazi Germany, to the fawning content, it has to be an embarrassment to any thinking American Lutheran - or any of us in other parts of the world with a Lutheran history or background. No acknowledgment here of Luther's anti-Jewish rhetoric, or the invective directed against the peasant revolt. Luther was a complex figure, and this kind of selective treatment is little more than cheap sectarian apologetics.

The nearest thing I can think of are those hagiographies of Herbert W. Armstrong produced by groups like PCG. Which just goes to prove that cultic thinking can be wrapped in Nicene orthodoxy just as easily as Bible-belt Adventist apocalyptic.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Closer to Truth

Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn is the creator and host of the PBS television series Closer to Truth, the author or editor of numerous books, a long-time advisor to the Chinese government, and Senior Advisor at Citigroup (investment banking). He holds a Ph.D. in anatomy/brain research from UCLA and an M.S. in management from MIT.
(Adapted from the potted bio. in Skeptic)

It's an impressive resume, but to my way of thinking it misses out Robert Kuhn's finest accomplishment: as Plain Truth writer and wunderkind protégé of Herbert W. Armstrong.

Actually, I owe a personal debt to Kuhn. With his unknowing help I once snatched a rare "A" on an essay in my second year at Hamilton Teachers College. The lecturer was most impressed with my cogent research on animal language, but was puzzled at the frequent references to articles by Kuhn. Could I provide her with copies? I mumbled something, knowing full well that I'd never get around to that task - not unless I wanted a regrading in the general direction of South. The articles in question - coauthored by Kuhn and HWA - were on the subject of "animal brain and human mind" then appearing in the PT.

There's quite a leap between writing for The Plain Truth and Michael Shermer's feisty journal Skeptic, but Kuhn has hurdled the divide with a dense article in the last issue (no.2, 2007) called Why This Universe? - including four and a half pages of notes and references in small print! My science literacy stretches only as far as dipping into New Scientist, but Kuhn's article pushed me so far up the learning curve I developed a two-Panadol headache after the third paragraph. I won't embarrass myself by trying to offer a précis.

What did interest me was that Kuhn straddled the skeptic's fence by drawing on Shermer at one end of the spectrum, and anglogelical theologian Keith Ward on the other. It's an intriguing possibility that we live in a multiverse rather than a universe (see for example Parallel Universes Born Again in the 22 September New Scientist) but Kuhn remains aloof from drawing any conclusions. Obviously someone who is traumatized by the question "why not nothing?" at the tender age of 12 has brain wiring different from mine.

Such issues will apparently feature in the new series of Closer to Truth. Maybe it'll be a little clearer then.

Tuesday 2 October 2007


I know I'll get in trouble with this posting unless a qualifier is added in, so here it is: I'm not seriously suggesting the LXX should be adopted by modern Christians, and I am writing somewhat "tongue in cheek"... though the issues are real enough despite that.

It's always puzzled me that conservative Christians get all strident about the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, when it's clear that the New Testament writers wouldn't go near the thing. Instead they used the Septuagint (LXX) almost exclusively.

There are differences between the two, and for a long time it was assumed that the LXX was an inferior product, deviating from the Hebrew original. If so, how come the early church relied on it so completely?

Then along came the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it turns out that the LXX readings do in fact go back to the Hebrew. It seems that there were variant versions of the Hebrew scriptures, one set of which underlie the Masoretic tradition, so beloved of King James fanatics, and another which leads to the LXX.

It's discoveries like these - and the scholarship that flows from them - that forever renders the old-style "Bible helps" of a previous era redundant and misleading. That news doesn't seem to have yet percolated down to the fundamentalist subculture.

Assuming you're not able to read Greek, where would you go to check out the LXX text? There have been translations, but they tend to date back to the nineteenth century, which limits both their readability and their accuracy. Mind you, if you're one of the many Rip Van Winkles who still thinks Strong's is a valuable resource, that probably won't faze you.

If not, then there's good news. Oxford University Press is scheduled to release a new LXX English translation within a few months. Even better news, you can download a pre-publication version here.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear the gainsayers already. Why bother, mythology, yadda yadda. I'm not suggesting it be put to literalist proof-texting uses, or made the object of devotional navel gazing. On the contrary, neither practice seems particularly valuable to me for any Bible version. But it does open up a new window on the historical and literary issues which - and I guess this is my point - preclude the kind of mindlessness that's rife in the splinters, the genetically modified contemporary WCG, and the evangelical community generally.

Jewish folk would also probably be pleased to have ownership of their scriptures - rooted in the Masoretic tradition - back again. The misuse and appropriation of the Tanakh has served to create tension between the two communities for centuries.

The Septuagint is the Bible of the early church, no question. It's "apostolic" in the sense that the New Testament writers quoted it almost exclusively. To paraphrase the song "Gimme that ol' time religion", if it was good enough for Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, how come it's not good enough for Spanky, Six-pack, Big Dave, Dave the Visionary, and the Cincinnati Sanhedrin? Somebody might ask these many COG gurus with pretensions to apostolic principles (Rod Meredith uses the a-word habitually) if they'll be dumping their NKJVs and moving across to the new translation...

And if not, why not?