Thursday 29 November 2007

The Scarlet Harlot?

Holy Muddah Church - the one with corporate headquarters in Rome, Italy - is once again demonstrating how out of touch it is with the twenty-first century. This time it's over a book and a movie.

The Golden Compass is about to hit the big screens, based on the first book in Philip Pullman's amazing Sci-Fantasy trilogy for children.

Disclaimer: I'm respectful of Catholicism as a rule, and not only because Jared Olar gives me a swift kick when I have a relapse. It's suffered from constant misrepresentation at the hands of bigots. Some of the finest Christian scholars today are Catholic, and they're scrupulously honest with their research. Many Protestant objections are based on sheer historical ignorance. That said, it's unfortunate that the Enlightenment seems to have passed by the control freaks of the Catholic League.

I resisted reading Pullman for years, largely because my nephew recommended it so highly. Said nephew is a lecturer in economics, and one of those people I try not to engage in frequent conversation with 'cos the blighter makes me sound subnormal by comparison. Beside, what would an economist know about good fiction? Pullman's atheism was also another reason to avoid the series: being preached at by a militant atheist is every bit as irksome as a purple-shrouded bishop or a raving televangelist.

But I weakened at the start of the this month. Exams were over and I was looking for something to unwind with. Armed with a copy of Northern Lights (published in America as The Golden Compass) I collapsed into an armchair and started to read. I was hooked within minutes.

Pullman draws partly on the ideas in Milton's Paradise Lost to spin an incredible yarn about a renewed attempt to topple (the false) God off his throne, a sequel to the rebellion that saw Lucifer cast down, set in parallel worlds as well as our own. It's this that has brought down the wrath of Rome, and the sacred scarlet knickers have been well and truly knotted as a result. Only militant Catholics seem to be screaming and tossing toys out of the crib at this stage, though I wouldn't be surprised if one of the reactionary hacks in Cincinnati writes something inane in the GN.

I'm no atheist, as I keep trying to convince Bob Thiel, but I'd certainly recommend Pullman to anyone who loves provocative Sci-Fi. It's an excellent tale and, hey, it's written for kids, so it's not going to be too much of a mission for the average adult reader. I'll definitely be seeing the film when it's released. Will it corrupt minors? Less so, I expect, than many Sunday School Bible lessons.

But back to the Roman (or more properly, US Catholic) reaction. How much more credibility would "the Magisterium" have if it saw the Pullman books and film as a chance to dialog with postmodernism rather than indulge in prissy chest-pounding? If the church - any church - wants to look tired and frumpy, this is the way to do it. Catholics have been advised to stay away from the movie (which avoids the religious references so as not to cause offense), and the books are being removed from libraries in some parochial schools. Mother Church wants to censor the thinking of the faithful, but doesn't seem to have factored in the news that the Middle Ages have now passed. South Park, The DaVinci Code - it doesn't take much to set off the keening wails from the defenders of the faith. Surely there are weightier issues to obsess over?

Support freedom of thought, and indulge in a little yourself. See the movie, and try the books.

Related link: His Blasphemous Materials in the Irish Independent.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

$125,000,000 plus

Over a week after a tip-off that the CGI website was missing in action, there is still no sign of a Second Coming in cyberspace. Over a week off the Internet - what genius thought that was a good idea? Is CGI still out there? Hello? Helloooo?

News of the passing of Mrs Isobel Hoeh on November 21, wife of the late Dr Herman Hoeh.

For those with an interest in the historicity (or otherwise) of the Bible, this link to a recent book review was sent in from the Christian magazine Wittenburg Door. Nobody tell Clyde Kilough!

How much did lil' Joe get for the Ambassador Campus? $125,000,000 plus (over three separate transactions). How do we know this? Real Estate whiz Joseph P. McNulty - who takes the credit for the sales - tells us so in a promo for Edgewood Realty Partners. Click on the image to feel the gentle breeze off those greenbacks.


Postscript: Message from Vance (Stinson?) at CGI.

Gavin, thank you for your concern. You will be relieved to know that CGI is alive and well and that there has finally been some progress on the website. The site was supposed to be up and running by November 16, but, unfortunately, it didn't happen and still hasn't happened. (The new webmaster ran into some problems and was unable to deliver on time.) As you might imagine, we've been quite frustrated about this! The good news is that just this afternoon we were able to view the proposed homepage. The site should be back in operation within a couple of days or so--but please don't hold me to a definite date.

Sunday 25 November 2007

The Ultimate Guide

The ultimate guide to Biblical living... why didn't someone write this book long ago?

And why oh why is it classified under "humor" instead of "religion"?

We're talking about The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs.

Here's this bloke - a secular Jewish journalist - living in the Big Bad Apple and writing for Esquire, who decides to live the Bible way for a year. Out go the clothes with mixed fabrics, in comes tithing (though he spreads his largess among legitimate charities rather than delusional televangelists), while he wonders how to apply all those ghastly proverbs about whacking your kids to his exuberant three year old. This is literalism as few of us have known it, not even Tom Mahon and Robert the Berean Messenger. You just have to sympathize with his long-suffering wife!

And it's hilarious; which should tell us all something. There's an entertaining radio feature on the book on NPR.

Here's a book to relish over the long summer break (or for those of you in the other hemisphere, those long winter evenings.) Quirky and profound in equal measure, with cameo appearances from Amish, Mormon Polygamists, Samaritans, Creationists and a host of others. Regrettably, WCG only gets mentioned once, and only in passing, but that's probably a mercy for all concerned.

At last!

But, oh dear, imagine Rod King's comments next Sabbath?

Saturday 24 November 2007

Hillsong - Pt. 2

Reading about Hillsong certainly puts the WCG thing in perspective. Who'd have guessed that the prosperity gospel-soaked, tongues speaking types who gyrate to hypnotic worship music in the Assemblies of God have anything in common with Armstrongism.
But they do. Tanya Levin's book reminds us that religious servitude is no respecter of denominational distinctives. Beneath the happy-clappy lobotomised veneer the sociology and the psychology is nearly identical.
Armstrongism's day in the sun is long past, even if the news still hasn't reached a few of the staunchest old timers. The Elmer Gantry sideshows are still out there though, raking in the dough, but they're being performed in other ghettos on the fringe, though the key ideas are just the same.
Tithing for example, and the reign of misogyny. Emphasis on “family values” (where do you find that in the ministry of Jesus or Paul, or the New Testament as a whole?) and a jaundiced view of higher education. And glaring, blatant hypocrisy at the apex of the hierarchical food chain.
Hillsong is an Aussie phenomena with strong Kiwi connections. According to Levin, Pastor Brian Houston's dad, also a Pentecostal preacher, moved his family across the ditch when his moral failures became an issue here. A former NZ Prime Minister once remarked that emigrating Kiwi's improved the national IQ scores in both countries. It seems father Frank's flight could well be a case study in support of that notion. The details are there in the book and on the Web.
But forget the preening, strutting pastors. The parallels with WCG in the lives of the regular church folk are uncanny, and it was hard to know whether to laugh out loud or to just groan as Levin recounted her experiences and perceptions.
If WCG was a 1960s B movie in the theater of toxic religion, Hillsong appears to be a racier twenty-first century version with catchy music and expensive blue stage special effects. You can check out some You-Tube commentary over on Felix Taylor's blog.
Meantime I've decided to do a one-person boycott of Gloria Jean's, the cafe franchise owned by Hillsong devotees that apes Starbucks. You can get a better fair-trade-friendly flat white at Esquires – and know that 10% doesn't come off your receipt to fund fundies.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Revisionist history

Remember the Global Church of God, publisher of The World Ahead?

A gaggle of the good and the great departed from the Tkach Dominion in an effort to turn back time. Principal among them, Roderick C. Meredith and Raymond F. McNair.

To cut a long story short, the Global Board dumped the Meredith ego, but the dumbest of the sheep followed the Imperious One into exile. A new all-Meredith sect was established - one where all the less-than-leading evangelists (i.e. everyone other than Rod) - knew their place. Thus was the Living Church of Rod formed.

Meredith took the mailing list, Global was gutted, the GCG defaulted on loans, crashed and burned. A few of the loyalists - those who knew Meredith too well to go whoring after the Imperious Leader - ultimately, like Larry Salyer, ended up in UCG.

The brave attempt to see Meredith off occurred nine years ago, and to mark the occasion Bob Thiel has posted a little revisionist account of the event. Rod is the noble hero, along with his boot-licking cabal. LCG, Bob tells us, has had 2,600 baptisms since then.

Well, with the amount of tithing and obligatory fasting LCG requires, it'd be surprising if there hadn't been a swag of baptisms, and 2.6k indeed sounds impressive compared to some other Armstrong sects.

But what I'd like Bob to share with us all is the retention rate. How many of those who sign up to the pseudo-Philadelphian Work of Rod last twelve months, 3 years, five? WCG itself had a revolving door, and turnover in PCG and the micro-splinters can reach well beyond 50%. How many have been seduced by Chuckie Bryce, Dave Pack, old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all? In the time I've been following the fortunes of LCG there has been a consistent pattern of hemorrhaging.

The big drama is still in the future when the sweet chariot swings low for the Imperious Evangelist himself. Hands up all those who think there will be a smooth and enduring transition? Alas, Rod's hierarchical mentality can only bequeath a bunfight among the pretenders to the throne. Then the question of the hour will surely be which way Bob will jump.

Monday 19 November 2007

CGI keeps us guessing

True confession time: I was a foundation member of the Church of God, International in New Zealand. Hey, it was a long time ago.

Back then I had quite a collection of sermon tapes from Garner Ted Armstrong and Ron Dart. CGI was, on reflection, a halfway house on the road back to relative sanity. I still have the preview issue of Twentieth Century Watch, the glossy magazine that was designed to take on The Plain Truth. For a short time it appeared that Ted's splinter would take off and provide a credible alternative to WCG, then groaning under the senile ego of Herbert W. Armstrong.

Then there was a major walkout by the group's top talent as Ted threw a hissy fit over who was boss. Al Portune and Wayne Cole came and went, TCW editor Alan Heath dropped off the edges. Greg Doudna and Gary Alexander (both early contributors to the magazine) slipped into the murky waters and swam to shore, David Antion detached. The little Kiwi fellowship quickly wised up and fell apart.

CGI downsized but survived with Ted and Ron, the Dynamic Duo, running the operation till Ted had a close encounter during a therapeutic massage session. Ron bailed and the board belatedly dumped Ted, who then set up shop again with the hilariously misnamed Intercontinental Church of God.

But you can't kill weeds, or so they say. CGI "consolidated" and battled on.

But has The End now finally arrived? Or is CGI merely coiled to spring out on an unsuspecting world with a stunning new presence? What is certain is that the website is temporarily (?) down. They say they'll be back, but if so, why take down the old site completely?

The armor on the seal, by the way, was modeled on a suit Ted bought on a British junket back in his cash-rich WCG days and had mounted as some kind of anachronistic trophy (medieval armor isn't what the pseudonymous author of Ephesians had in mind.) Ted was booted out, presumably along with his antique armor, but the silly seal remained. If I remember correctly they decided to turn that particular lemon into lemonade by naming their cable TV show Armor of God, though "Armor of Ted" would have been more literally true.

Will CGI return? I guess we'll just have to hold our breaths...

Sunday 18 November 2007

Hillsong - Pt. 1

If you're an Aussie, you already know what Hillsong is. If you're a church-going Kiwi, chances are you do too. Walk into any Christian bookshop in Australia or New Zealand and cruise the music display, Hillsong will leap out at you. Hillsong Music is big business, with an influence that extends well beyond the Assemblies of God, the denomination which Hillsong belongs to. Hillsong is Australia's largest, most successful mega-church, and its TV program is seen in a number of other countries including the US (TBN, Daystar), Canada, New Zealand (TV3 and Shine) and - of all places - Estonia. Even current Prime Minister John Howard has put in an appearance in the pews.

You might think that puts it light years beyond Armstrongism, but not necessarily so. Tanya Levin, a former Hillsong member, recently launched a book that promises to do for Hillsong what David Robinson's Tangled Web did for WCG.

Called People in Glass Houses, Levin's book had a rough ride before hitting the bookstores. Publisher Allen & Unwin backed off after agreeing to print the book in February. Truth, however, will eventually out, and the book, with a new publisher, has now been reprinted after its first edition sold out. Unfortunately, as there's no American edition, readers in the northern hemisphere might be hard-pressed to find a copy, but an article in the Sydney Morning Herald is a helpful place to find out more.

Levin's tale is reminiscent of times past in the WCG with all the key elements: fanaticism, money and sex. I have no idea how many former WCG folk have been lured into the Hillsong embrace, but if there's anything we've learned over the years it's that disillusioned members tend to be drawn to equally dubious movements as moths to the flame.

More on this to follow...

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Another Journal hits the post

The September-October Journal is in November's mail. One of the intriguing things about Dixon Cartwright's newspaper is its unpredictability, and I don't mean when to expect the next issue to surface. No, I mean its content. Here's a sampler of what's on offer.

Mac Overton waxes eloquently on the subject of secession. (Unrelated bumper sticker no. 1: nothing secedes like secession. Unrelated bumper sticker no. 2: nothings succeeds like a budgerigar.) Mac's argument is that if it weren't for stroppy old beggars like Spanky and Hulme - I'm not sure whether he's prepared to draw Gerry and the Packatollah under the sacred canopy as well - all those precious Herbal truths would've been lost.

I've had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails with Mac, and he's both a decent bloke and a fine journalist, but this time you'll have to forgive a raised eyebrow on my part. Mac writes:

Those who remain in WCG follow a church that has not a dime's worth of difference with the First United Methodist Church in both doctrine and governance.

Stirring stuff, but I wonder if it's completely true, at least not if United Methodists in the US manage their affairs in a similar way to Methodists in the rest of the world. Do they have an unelected Pastor Generalissimo and toothless appointed boards of yes-persons? I doubt it.

Moving along, how's this for an article title: What can we learn from the man who circumcised Jesus? by Ken Westby? So many possible puns (cutting remarks and snippets); so few in good taste!

Ah, moving right along... how about a slapping around for Greg Doudna's book on WCG and AC at Big Sandy? I've reviewed this one myself, but Tom Adams is less enthusiastic. Referring to an earlier Journal review Tom opines:

[T]he previous reviewer recommended Showdown at Big Sandy as a good Feast present for friends. This is true if you also think a copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses would be an appropriate confirmation gift for a Catholic.
Ouch! Tom has a point, I suppose, if we're talking about a COG-AIC, PCG or RCG cult FOT, but there are a lot of bright cookies out there in UCG and among the independents who might not agree. If I was Dixon I'd serialize the book: he'd be swamped with protesting emails from people who couldn't spell, but I bet his subscriber base would show a growth spurt.

Last and least, revealed in the ad section, Craig White has new book out with the portentous title: In Search of the Great German Nation: Origins and Destiny, which he seems to have self published. Among those paying tribute to the new opus is none other than Mac Overton who calls it "well researched" and "the best and most thorough treatment of the subject I've seen." Call me skeptical, but I'll treat that opinion seriously when I see a qualified ethnologist do something other than laugh hysterically at the suggestion that Germany is Assyria in prophecy. Tom Adams, however, may well feel differently.

Yep, each issue of The Journal is a proverbial curate's egg, but I still wouldn't want to miss an issue. There's a free download of the front and back pages here.

Saturday 10 November 2007

TIME archives sorry tale

TIME magazine's religion section chronicled the major tribulations of the WCG during the 1970s. In a pre-Internet age it was one of the few ways members and co-workers could keep up with the play: the church itself could only be relied on for spin. Those articles are now archived online, available again for any who care to search them out.

May 1972: Garner Ted Armstrong, Where Are You? (I vividly remember this one!)
June 1972: Garner Ted Returns
March 1974: Trouble in the Empire
June 1978: Strong-Arming Garner Ted
Jan 1979: Propheteering?
Feb 1981: When Mammon serves God (the WCG features in the second half of the article)

Relive a little history, and then breathe easier knowing that today the Empire is as shattered as Humpty Dumpty.


I mentioned Reformed theologian Karl Barth some time back. Barth is one of my least favorite thinkers: any mind poisoned with Calvinism is a terrible waste. Why bother mentioning Barth? Well, he's flavor of the month with certain WCG ministerial types, poor deluded souls. Once you've been led up the garden path with Karl, your brain inevitably turns to mush and you lose contact with reality. This is clearly demonstrated by the quality of posts on the WCG's Surprising God blog - a kind of mutual admiration forum for the terminally deluded.

I'm particularly fed up with Barthianity at the moment, having just suffered a semester with a compulsory paper infused with his insidious influence. I don't mind a balance: a little Barth alongside a cross section of other voices, but alas there is an aftertaste of Presbyterian myopia on the faculty, and other traditions - other than that peculiar variety of Anglicanism that calls itself Evangelical - get second-class treatment.

More positive by far has been a paper on the Dead Sea Scrolls which has been truly fascinating, and once I recover from the examination, I fully intend to bore anyone silly enough to read it with an entry on some freaky parallels between Qumran and Armstrongism. You have been warned!

Meantime, this piece of artwork portrays the mighty Swiss theologian. It seems very apt.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Faithful flock's flinched fleeces

Don Billingsley is an old-time minister of the Radio Church of God. His chief claim to historical fame is being the second member of the baptizing team in the fatal car crash that took the life of Herbert Armstrong's eldest son, Richard. Like so many others he found it hard to adjust to the Tkach regime change, and bolted off to establish the Church of God EIM (Established in Modesto).

Time passed and COG-EIM and their pastor came to a parting of the ways - another common occurrence among disaffected brethren. Suddenly Don found himself starting from scratch and breaking in a new ministry which could well have been called Church of God DIM (Disestablished in Modesto) but instead adopted the name Church of God - Faithful Flock. It's a small group, but readers of The Journal will know of it through Don's regular full-page ads.

What's interesting is the literature that Don is offering on the COG-FF website. More specifically, the authorship of that literature, including...

Paul Kroll
Neil Earle
Bernie Schnippert

Hey, wait a minute, aren't these guys Joe Junior's myrmidons? Well, yes. Paul is the long-suffering personal correspondent, Neil pastors the Glendora franchise and Bernie apparently still rakes in some sort of salary after years as a high profile financial apparatchik under Joe.

So how come these luminaries get a by-line on Don's site? Simple. Don has dredged up ancient articles they wrote decades ago. No matter than these fellows have long since repudiated their views of the seventies and eighties.

Articles by Kroll and Earle appear in the online publication Prophecy Comes Alive. Schnippert's 1982 GN article on "counterfeit faith" is promoted separately (and prominently).

Earth calling Don, this is (a) not a good look, and (b) misleading. Whether there's a copyright issue is for someone else to judge. Regardless of that, the authors - unless they've given permission, which seems highly unlikely - would have every right to feel thoroughly hosed off.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

When will they ever learn

The latest issue of Tomorrow's World is out, and Spanky and his gang are performing their seasonal beat up on Xmas, along with the usual butchery on the text of Revelation.

Notable too is this back page photograph of the Four Horsefeatherers of the post-Herbal Apocalypse. That's Wally Smith, Rod the Ranter, Dickie Ames and Rod the Aussie. Pretty scary, huh.

But fear not, little flock, here's the word from Team Charlotte:

We are definitely living in the “last days”! Christ will undoubtedly return within the lifetimes of the young people growing up today—and many older people may also live to witness this awesome event. (Rod Meredith, p.7)
Well, I bet no-one here has heard that before!

Monday 5 November 2007

Compulsive Conservatism

The latest issue of the Not-so Good News is about to hit the mailboxes, and the lads in editorial have chosen the theme of addictions as the focus for their bi-monthly platitudes.

Douglas, did you hear that? Few people have made the connection between Armstrongism and addictive disorders as clearly as Douglas Becker. Will this latest issue bring Douglas down, Sennacherib-style, like a wolf upon the Cincinnati fold, or is he - like myself - simply struck speechless by the irony of it all?

The GN is still a quality magazine compared to LCG's Tomorrow's World, but that's not saying much. Take a look at the political content (exhibit one: "Nations around the world gang up on America" - lead item in the World News & Trends section.) It seems that each passing month the commentary becomes more facile and predictable. Will these guys - Schroeder, Aust, Rhodes and company - ever start to think outside the box? Thirty long years ago The Plain Truth produced, despite itself and allowing for very mixed motives, some reasonably cutting edge material on issues like the environment (anyone remember Our Polluted Planet?) OK, so it was part of the doom and gloom thing, but at least it took the focus away from the usual line-up of self-pitying whinges and whines. Could the old blokes at UCG possibly do something as imaginative as that in 2007, or are they just too addicted to playing "ain't it awful" on apple-pie knee-jerk issues.

I guess that's a rhetorical question.

Saturday 3 November 2007

Bloggin' with Peter Nathan

Peter Nathan was once the regional director for the WCG in New Zealand, sandwiched between Bob Morton and Raymond McNair. Our paths never crossed as I left the church shortly before the great man took up the helm. These days he continues in the ministry of the Hulme sect, COG-AIC.

You've got to hand it to Hulme, he produces a spiffy magazine by COG standards, and rubs shoulders with an impressive cross section of scholars. Peter Nathan follows in his steps with a blog - part of the sect's official Vision site - called First Followers. For a fringe Adventist group with decidedly unorthodox leanings, these guys seem to have built up a surprising degree of credibility. First Followers has begun to appear on lists of scholarly blogs. If nothing else, this WCG/UCG splinter has a talent for convincing PR. (Needless to say, though, there's no facility for Peter Nathan's readers to post comments.)

The problem is that, despite the appearance of articulate views and informed opinions, COG-AIC is, to put it as charitably as possible, right up there with Appalachian snake handlers and Polygamist Mormons in the estimation of much of the theological establishment. Impartial academics they are not.

Thursday 1 November 2007

Barbie, Ken, Martin, Herb

I used to think that Catholics had the market pretty much cornered on repellent religious kitsch. You know, plaster Madonnas, ornate crucifixes and suchlike. But then I discovered the windup Luther doll, and now I'm not so sure. To be honest, it may just be a bunch of American Lutherans with an untypical sense of humor: please tell me that's the explanation!

But, once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I got to thinking. What about a windup Herb doll? After all, if dour Scandinavians and wooden-headed Missouri Teutons can laugh at themselves this way, surely anyone can (except Calvinists of course.)

I'm personally drawn to the idea of a talking model that says "pour me another Harveys Bristol Cream, hic!" or maybe "we're in the gun lap now brethren," but other possibilities abound. Any suggestions?

Of course, a GTA doll would be more properly referred to as an action figure, and be anatomically correct.

Meantime I'm rather tempted to order a set of those Sin Boldly beer glasses.