Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Good Book

James Pate, a biblioblogger with some previous WCG experience behind him, has just reviewed the Book of Mormon. You'll find a link to James' blog in the sidebar. I'm struck with admiration, personally being of the same view as Mark Twain on this noble literary confection: chloroform in print. How did James stay awake to complete his task? In any case it's a fair and well written review, quite short, and definitely worth checking out.

I have an alternative suggestion for James however, and confess to be currently making my way through it. The Good Book by (sort of) A. C. Grayling. It's a compendium (kind of) of wise advice, observations and insight from some of the greatest writers in history, from ancient Rome to the modern day. Grayling has melded them together as "a secular Bible". Moreover, he's organised them into 17 biblical-style books; Genesis (nothing like the original), Wisdom, Parables, Proverbs, Acts... you get the idea.

The text is a bit uneven at times - I really didn't like Sages. But much - most - is helpful and enlightening. Dare one say inspirational? Nothing religious at all.

At the risk of being stoned, and based on what I've read so far (this isn't the kind of tome you want to speed-read through) I highly recommend it. Nothing here to offend any person of goodwill, Christian, Atheist or otherwise, and much to ponder. In due course I'll probably post a few quotes.

Better than the Bible? I wouldn't want to comment. Better than the Book of Mormon. Absolutely!

"I Must Go Down to the Sea Again..."

"So where is this bl*%dy sea?"
I must go down to the sea again, 
to the lonely sea and the sky;
I left my shoes and socks there - 
I wonder if they're dry? 

Spike Milligan

I believe there's another earlier version of that verse, but Milligan is a personal favourite, so let's begin there.

I've been neglectful of Paul Davidson's excellent blog Is That In The Bible? and have only just come across his latest post on that famous biblical body of water, the Sea of Galilee. You know, stormy waters, ships foundering. You find it appearing in our first canonical gospel, Mark.

Davidson has one of those inquiring minds that makes me feel quite dense by comparison. He doesn't blog frequently, but when he does, watch out. His is a voice of reasoned discourse, and he documents his ideas and conclusions with great care. He uses the word "nerdy" in a self-deprecating way, but despite not being in the hallowed academy, he runs rings around those self-serving apologists who have gathered the wagons around to defend the often indefensible.

Anyway, the question in this case is, did the author of Mark just plain invent the Sea of Galilee? It's a question I never considered before, but Paul lays out the evidence. Absolutely intriguing.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Sentimental Christianity (from AW)

There's an interesting discussion occurring off-blog about Lonnie Hendrix's recent "God and Jane Fonda" posting. Here's a couple of excerpts from that post.
I have been saying for several years now that Christianity is NOT an intellectual experience. True Christianity is not found in a set of doctrines or teachings. Like God, it cannot be fully or adequately explained by ANY book or pamphlet. Paul wrote in many places that Christianity cannot be explained or understood using man's words and wisdom - that it is OUTSIDE of that realm. Christianity must be experienced on an emotional level - in the gut. I'm not saying that you have to experience Christianity in the same way (or using the same words) that Fonda did, but I am saying that you can't be a TRUE Christian by comprehending and/or adopting a set of beliefs as your own. Choose your own words, but you must be "begotten again" or "reborn."

Try to forget the literalist and fundamentalist baloney. Abandon the apologetics. You're never going to get there on that road... It turns out that the HEART and SENTIMENTALITY are what it's all about! You've got to FEEL it on the inside. Wipe that smug, self-righteous smirk off of your face and let God and Christ into your heart.
Do read the entire piece.

I guess I know where Lonnie is coming from. I certainly agree strongly with many of these statements, but I still did a double take. I'm not so sure that something called Christianity can be primarily "experienced on a emotional level - in the gut." That's where values come from, the still, small voice, the conviction that something is right - or wrong. But Christianity has no exclusive market on that. Isn't that the whole point of Romans 1:19-20?

And I'm not sure that the heart and sentimentality are what it's all about either. It took more than sentimentality to motivate the reformers and abolitionists who fought the slave trade, who campaigned for women's suffrage, who work today for a just society worth handing on to future generations. There were few more "sentimental" varieties of Christianity in the years leading up to World War One than German Protestantism, especially in its Pietistic form, but that seemed to matter not at all as nationalism swept across the face of Europe, and the pastors fell in behind the Kaiser in whipping up unquestioning patriotic fervor.

My point, I guess, is that to identify good feelings and sentiments with Christianity creates a category error. And to focus on good feelings and intentions can lead to quietism and withdrawal from the great issues which should command our attention and passionate advocacy. Christianity, under any positive definition I'd be comfortable with, is as much about the hand as the heart.

Christianity, Lonnie contends, comes to us from outside the realm of human words and wisdom. Again, I know what he means, but can anything beyond instinct and lower animal behaviour really be conveyed outside the realm of language? Even if that was true, which I personally doubt, there is no other place that it - or anything good - can be expressed other than in this messy realm with all its uncomfortable paradoxes.

Doctrine, apologetics... on these I agree wholeheartedly with Lonnie. But if you strip them away, I wonder if what you're left with is best described as something other than Christianity. And, in my view, intellectual rigor, engaging the mind, at least at a basic level, is a non-negotiable element in negotiating one's way through life - and that includes faith commitments of whatever stripe.

As Lonnie often says, what do you think?

The demonic and the depressive (2 of 2) - from AW

I drive past the local Anglican parish church several times a week. An oppressive stone building, it sits on a main intersection in town. I've only been inside once, around age ten, when my parents drove up from Hamilton for a cousin's wedding. It seemed a fairly strange place to an out-of-town Lutheran kid, not least because of the impressive (brass?) eagle lectern which utterly fascinated my younger self. These seem to be features exclusively associated with Anglican churches and, I'm reliably informed, represent "St. John the Evangelist."

I wouldn't say this particular church is the ugliest I've seen. Churches of a similar age in Melbourne, judging from a trip there several years ago, probably trump this particular structure decisively. These buildings reflect a colonial age in which Christian worship was a rather dour, serious activity. Hushed voices, patronising ten-minute homilies, often cheerless hymnody, no room for spontaneity. The architecture was designed to put you in your lowly place. You attended because it was expected. Good people went to church in the same way good businessmen belonged to service groups like the Lions Club or Rotary. Which denomination largely depended on your family background. Scottish? Tick Presbyterian. English? Tick Anglican. Irish? Tick Catholic.

But times have changed, and the preference these days is for the bubble-gum flavoured mush that the happy-clappy charismatic, prosperity-focused churches vomit forth. The traditional churches haven't kept up. Perhaps they shouldn't even try, but the sad truth is that they're now so out of step with the surrounding culture that their demographic is rapidly sliding into senescence.

On an optimism-pessimism continuum, traditional churches tend to teeter at the depressive "op shop" end. Not that I'm against op shops, they provide a valuable service, but this is often as far as social engagement goes in the historic denominations - at least on a parish/congregational level. When your community PR and profile is mainly associated with this kind of down-in-the-mouth venture, it isn't likely that you're going to attract or retain millennials. It's worthy. It's earnest. But worthy and earnest need to be balanced with something from the joyful end of the spectrum. It makes more sense to me (but what do I know?) to have many local churches vigorously supporting a single initiative alongside other non-religious charitable groups with minimal - or no - church branding.

This whole thing is summed up for me in the audience response to a lecture at Auckland University some time ago by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is both a New Testament scholar and Jewish. She constantly used humour in her presentation, and very effectively. The attendees were the local Christian theological set. What amazed me was how the humour completely went over the heads of at least half the listeners. I was sitting a couple of seats along from a couple of what seemed to be young religious professionals. They seemed genuinely immune. Certainly they were unappreciative - not even a smile, perhaps they were just puzzled. It was a hard room to play to. The thought that these blokes were going forth into pulpits the following Sunday was genuinely worrying. It still is.

The demonic and the depressive (1 of 2) - from AW

City Impact's Mortlock
The New Zealand Herald has unmasked the worst demon-spawned sects that create havoc across the country's Christian landscape.

Of course, that's not the kind of language the august Herald chooses to use, nor that of the expert commentator they quote, but that's how I see it.

I'm using the term "demonic" and "demon-spawned" in a metaphorical sense. There are no fallen angelic entities that correspond to the literal definition many people still quaver in fear of. Demonic is still a useful descriptor, however, for high demand religious movements which mercilessly exploit gullibility through manipulation - and line the pockets of their leaders in the process.

Only one of these cults (and yes, I'm aware that in the academic realm where religious studies are pursued "cult" is a word avoided at all costs) is not a "prosperity gospel" franchise; the faux-Amish Gloriavale community. Gloriavale is however perhaps the most controlling of these entities, especially if you're a woman or someone with any kind of thirst for independent thinking.

Not surprising to find "Bishop" Brian Tamaki's Destiny Church on the list, nor City Impact Church led by Peter Mortlock. The others include C3, Victory, Life NZ, Equippers and Arise.

"Combined, the religious charities have amassed assets worth more than $214m."

That won't sound like much by American standards, but New Zealand is a small, overwhelmingly secular nation with a population of under 5 million. 

What's the appeal of groups with rubbish theologies and narcissistic leadership models? Peter Lineham of Massey University, whose background is Open Brethren, notes:

"All of these churches hold to what we call the ­prosperity ­doctrine - which argues that the sign of God's love for you will be that you become rich and that you will earn God's love by the generosity of your gifts to the church."

Frankly, you'd have to wonder how stupid someone would have to be to embrace this kind of abuse. Yet many do, and with great enthusiasm. At that point abuse also becomes self-abuse.

But where are the prophetic voices in the more mature Christian community? The voices calling out the prosperity gospel and exposing it for what it is? Where are the prominent Baptists, Presbyterians and others who are willing to decry these caricatures of churches? For God's sake, surely this calls for - at the very least - a measure of indignation.

The silence is deafening. The truth is probably that the virus has infected their denominations too, and that any attempt to effectively address the issues would have catastrophic consequences in low-energy denominations which try and project a smiling, non-threatening, irenic face to the world.

And so the "demons" go unopposed.

The Plain Truth about Balaam's Ass (from AW)

If you thought you already had a handle on the famous talking donkey tale, you might want to check out Paul Davidson's blog. Things are not as simple as they seem. Paul provides a mixture of archaeological data along with some impressive textual detective work that explores the contradictory information found in the Bible. This is one of the smartest biblical commentators I know of, and he makes a pretty watertight case. The Balaam character evolved down the years from a prophet of God to a pagan bad guy.

If you needed any further evidence that the Bible can't just be read at face value, this about clinches it.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Siesta time for Otagosh


Keeping two blogs running is a demanding task, at least as far as I'm concerned. Over the years the balance has shifted back and forth between Otagosh and Ambassador Watch. The idea was to post more theological material - particularly related to biblical studies - on the former, and Church of God stories and commentary on the latter.

To simplify things I've decided to include all new Otagosh stories on AW first. The existing blog won't disappear. If you just want to view the latest posts that relate to the kind of things Otagosh has covered you can weed out the often surreal COG content with the Otagosh-specific link http://ambassadorwatch.blogspot.co.nz/search/label/Otagosh 

Every so often, time permitting, I'll reblog relevant posts back over on AW as well. We'll see how it goes.