Friday, September 17, 2010

The Parable of the iPad and the Swimming Pool

Last week’s episode of the Gruen Transfer, in which the panel discussed the marketing of religion, did more than just prompt my musings on the “H Word”. It also touched upon something else that’s been on my mind about the inestimable impact of modernism on what David Wells calls “Our Time”.

David F Wells is the author of a book that my brother loaned me called, “No place for truth, or whatever happened to Evangelical Theology?” (IVP, 1995). I’m half way through and I hope my reading of it doesn’t end up like so many of my unfinished projects, which is, of course, unfinished.

According to the bio, David Wells is (or was) a Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Massachusetts. The central thesis of the first part of his rather dense book is that we’ve got more to worry about from modernism than any other “ism” out there.

Wells describes a massive paradigm shift that has occurred, largely unnoticed outside specialist circles, in the last 200 or so years of western civilization. In a nutshell, before we derived our self-identity from family and place (in which Church played an important role) and after we derive our self-identity from our own internal experience.

The rather profound outworkings of this paradigm shift are that a pre-modern person would look outside himself or herself in order to interpret and understand the world, and a post-modern would look inside himself or herself.

This might sound highly theoretical, but it becomes important when you consider that the Biblical idea of God is someone that transcends human experience. If you've got difficulty following the jargon, think of a God who was there before there were any human beings to experience Him (Gen 1:1), and who will be there after the end of all things, too (Rev 22:13). In other words, God is outside of us, but He also enters into our experience in a tangible way (John 1:14).

According to Wells, the post-modern mind finds this concept confusing, incomprehensible and, possibly, very frightening. Basically, there’s a God out there who does not conform to whatever image we have of Him in our minds. To the post-modern, God is a threat and that’s seen as a bad thing (even if it’s true).

Anyway, the Ad-luvvies on the Gruen Transfer articulated the post-modern view superbly (if unconsciously), with their talk of “building the brand”. To them, religion is a consumable, and the success of the advertising is measured in increased sales (or bums on pews). They weren’t concerned with content, or whether something was true or not, and that might not be such a bad thing in the context of mass marketing. They were simply concerned about whether the adverts did the job of getting people into church (or, keeping the converted in the church).

So, the Ad-men’s appraisal of religious advertising was set within the same context of marketing the iPad. It might require some initial investment, but it’s something you can slip into your handbag with everything else that you carry around with you, and once you’ve got it, you’ll find that it’s cool and useful. The connection to post-modernism is that the “usefulness” of the product is assessed according to each individual’s experience. And, like the proverbial product, we have the right to discard it when it interferes with our predispositions, aspirations and habits.

Another one of my projects (which I hope to continue) is that I’ve been doing lane-swimming at the local pool on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m quite pleased with my progress, but I still get passed by human torpedoes more regularly than I’d like.

One of my musings, while swimming, is that I’d like someone to ask me if I find my Christian faith “useful”. I’ve been looking for answer such a question for a while, and I think I’ve found one. Ask me if my Christian faith helps me in my life, and I will ask whether the swimming pool helps my swimming.

It’s a riddle, of course. The water in the pool slows me down tremendously (I’d get to the other end much faster if I could walk). But without the pool there would be no swimming. Without God there would be no life, so the question about whether He helps you in it or not is unanswerable. OK, so there are some rules, like don’t try to breath in when you’re head is under water, but the rules make sense when you acknowledge that you’re in a swimming pool.

So, we’re back to the pre-modern/post-modern thing. Like God, the swimming pool is outside me, and I am in the pool. It’s not simply a figment of my imagination, which I can re-create according to my internal dictates. Acknowledging the pool and my place in it is the start of my sustainable relationship with the pool.

The acknowledgment of God is the start of a sustainable relationship between Creator and creature, and it is also the start of the sustainable relationships between us creatures. The first lesson in this is that we cannot re-mold reality just because it doesn't suit us. Truth is important and, contrary to the conspiracy theorists (like Dan Brown) the concept of transcendent truth is highly valued in the Christian faith.

Oh, and iPads are cool, too.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The H Word

One of the few TV programs that I consciously make an effort to watch is the ABC’s Gruen Transfer. For those of you who prefer your TV to be about people chasing balls around football pitches or ordinary-people-acting-ordinarily-with-some-grooming-from-the-producers (a.k.a. Reality TV), the Gruen Transfer is a full frontal on advertising, which is really about modifying people’s aspirations and expectations, which is really about human nature and how we communicate to each other.

Anyway, this week (Episode 9) the panel looked at Advertising Religion. Usually, I cringe and hide behind the lounge whenever TV tackles religion, partly because it usually makes such a mess of it and partly because it usually stereotypes believers like me as gay-bashing snake-handlers with no reason to justify my existence on this planet (maybe I need to grow a thicker skin?).

Surprisingly, the discussion on the Gruen Transfer was one of the best I’ve seen on the topic for a long time. It featured the “Hey Jesus” ads that were run in New South Wales (funded by contributions from 1500 churches – mostly evangelical I suspect), plus ads from the Mormons, Scientologists and AnswersInGenesis. No, it didn’t have the gravity of a Papal Encyclical or a Fatwah, but it did treat the subject with humanity, candidness and insight, which is how it should be treated.

One of the off-the-cuff comments of Todd Sampson, a regular and engaging panelist, caught my attention because it touched on a subject that I’ve been thinking over recently. In responding to other comments about Hell and how it can be used to scare people into church, Mr. Sampson said, “I thought that was its job” (or words to that effect).

I think Mr. Sampson has rightly echoed a popular misconception about the place of Hell in Christian Theology, and I’d like to see the church (or churches) do something to correct it. It's time to tackle the H Word.

This may be an impossible task, of course, but in keeping with the Gruen Transfer’s focus on advertising, I thought an ad campaign might be in order. Here’s a draft script…

You might think that we invented Hell to scare you into church.

But, if there were no church, would there be no Hell?

And if there were no Hell, would there be any ultimate justice?

I mean, if there were no Hell, then he got away with it [shows graphic of Adolf Hitler]. And so did these guys [shows graphic of 9/11 WTC]. And so will he [graphic of Robert Mugabe or some other current bad guy].

If there were a Hell, who decides who will go there?

When it comes to justice, I know you try to get it right, and I’m not suggesting you stop trying. But we know that sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes, what gets sold to us as justice is really just a private political or personal agenda.

And, if we’re really honest, we’ve got to admit that we’ve all contributed when things go wrong, even in the smallest ways, or by failing to act when we should have acted, or by withholding help when it was needed. Does that mean we all deserve Hell? Should we be allowed to get away with it?

We believe in Hell, because without it there is no ultimate justice.

We also believe that the One Person who decides who should go there is the One Person who has demonstrated that he is not captive to self-interest, and that he knows what it means to live in this world, with all its injustices. We believe he can be trusted to make the right judgments.

We believe in working towards a better world today, but ultimately, whatever happens, there is One who will see to it that justice is ultimately served and no one, not even those who go to church, will be exempt.

In this context, we believe that Hell is good news.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Bible Bashing on Hungry Beast

This week's blog is another catch-up.

In April 2010, the ABC aired the last of its series "Hungry Beast". I enjoyed the program as a refreshingly different take on current affairs with an eclectic mix of light-hearted comedy, satire, cynicism and serious criticism.

However, there were two pieces in one episode that irritated me to the point that I wrote a complaint to the ABC. The following is my complaint, and the response from the ABC.

(I have edited the emails to remove email addresses. I have also inserted some links for ease of reference).

I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand, the ABC has seriously considered my objections in accordance with its own guidelines. On the other it has assumed that its audience is aware of the difference between the Old and New Testament (am I assuming that the audience knows too little?) and is capable of time-lining the development of the Bible (noting that some surveys have suggested that most people don't know who came first, Paul or Moses). So, I'll invite readers to answer the question, was the ABC's response satisfactory?

To: Audience & Consumer Affairs
From: Martin Jacobs
Subject: Bible-bashing on Hungry Beast
Date: 15/04/10 22:12

Below is the result of your feedback form. It was submitted by Martin Jacobs
ABC program: Hungry Beast
Response required: true
Date of program: 15 April 2010
Contact type: Complaint
Location: QLD
Subject: Bible-bashing on Hungry Beast

Comments: Dear sirs,

Where do you draw the line between information and opinion? The short answer, I suspect, is that information is carefully compiled from demonstrable fact, and opinion is what you (or your viewers) make of it.

Last night's episode of Hungry Beast crossed that line with two of its articles.

The first concerned the bagging of Scientology and concluded by implying that all religions believe in crazy, implausible stuff so they are all (to use the presenter's phrase) "a little bit bullshit".

The second concerned the current pedophilia crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.

My objection is not that these subjects should not be addressed, or even satirized. I do not object to a presenter expressing an opinion on these matters, even if I find it offensive.

What I do object to is when the information in these articles misrepresents what can be learned from demonstrable facts.

The subject in this case is the history of the Bible, which was grossly misrepresented by your presenters. I wrote an email to Hungry Beast on this subject via its website last night.

The first article claimed that the Bible was written by a "couple of fishermen". The second claimed that the Didache (a late first to second century document) was "older than the Bible", and it implied that the Bible was both the creation and the sole property of a malfunctioning Catholic Church.

Whereas I don't expect your presenters to agree with the agenda of the Bible, I do expect that when they present something as "information" (not opinion), they might at least get their facts right. It seems, though, that they got their information straight out of the Atheists Handbook, or Dan Brown's fiction, The Da Vinci Code. Had they not even heard of the Old Testament?

Whereas there is a broad spectrum of serious scholarship on the history of the Bible, the compelling consensus is that it is the product of a large number of people over a period of many centuries. The earliest parts of the Old Testament were written several hundred years before Christ, and the last parts of the New Testament can be reliably dated to the close of the First Century AD (or even the start of the 2nd), which coincides roughly with the authoring of the Didache.

What should be obvious from this timeline is that the Didache is NOT older than the Bible. That the Catholic Church did not create the four fifths of the Bible that is the Old Testament should be obvious from the fact that it wasn't around at the time. We could debate whether we should consider the New Testament authors as Catholics, but we're still mid to late First Century AD, well before the Didache.

Further, there is a compelling case that the Bible has been reliably transmitted from its autographs, which places the idea that the Catholic Church changed it in the Third Century AD firmly in the urban myth basket. The Catholic Church has done many things (current crisis included), but the one thing it has not done is vandalize the Bible.

Your reporters should also note that the Bible is not the sole property of the Roman Catholic Church; the Reformation saw to that. In fact, the Bible isn't owned by anyone, which is a good thing because new translations cannot go unchallenged. No single interest group can alter it to suit their own agenda, though it is every person's prerogative to make what they will of it.

Ironically, I would agree with your article's assessment on the origins of the Book of Mormon (Joseph Smith's head in a hat), because it is borne out by the extant documented evidence (including the records of the LDS Church). For some years I have been involved with a counter-cult initiative, which contends for these issues at Having read the Qu'ran, I have a little more sympathy for it, and if you have the time, you can browse my opinions at I have also run a short course in the History of the Bible, and studied theology by correspondence with Moore Theological college in Sydney.

I don't necessarily expect your presenters to subscribe to my opinions, but to say that because one religion gets it wrong, they are ALL wrong, is plain wrong in itself.

Getting back to Hungry Beast; did the Church know about pedophilia 2000 years ago. According to the Didache, yes. But we've also known about murder since Cain, and that gets the same treatment. Again, the article's analysis is almost right in one respect, but it implied that the root cause of pedophilia was the Church. How absurd! Genuinely, I'd like to know if anyone else in the First or Second Century AD Greco-Roman world was taking a stand against pedophilia.

Fundamentally, I am concerned that too often the ABC presents certain urban myths as if they had some credible basis in demonstrable history. The currently fashionable dogma, that the Bible was created by a malfunctioning Catholic Church to serve its own agenda, is a prime example.

I would be pleased to discuss this further with the ABC, though I will do all I can to maintain the distinction between my information and my opinion.

Yours sincerely
Martin Jacobs

Subject:Re: Bible-bashing on Hungry Beast
Date:15 June 2010 2:38:51 PM
To:Martin Jacobs

Dear Mr Jacobs

Thank you for your email regarding the episode of Hungry Beast broadcast on 14 April. I am sorry for the long delay in responding to you.

I understand you considered that two segments in this program misrepresented facts. In accordance with the ABC's complaints process, your concerns have been investigated by Audience & Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of program making areas within the ABC. In light of your concerns, Audience & Consumer Affairs has assessed the segments to which you refer against the relevant editorial standards for accuracy.

The first segment to which you refer was the regular 'Things We Think Might be Bullshit' segment. This segment was categorised as opinion content in accordance with the ABC's editorial standards. This content category is subject to the requirements of section 6 of the ABC's Editorial Policies, available in full here: Opinion content is specifically commissioned or acquired to provide a particular perspective or point of view. The standard for accuracy which applies to this content category is outlined in section 6.6.4 of the Editorial Policies, as follows: "In the presentation of this content, staff should... take reasonable steps to ensure factual content is accurate".

In the case of 'Things We Think Might be Bullshit', each week a different member of the Hungry Beast team used the segment to briefly present their opinion on a specific subject. On this occasion, Daniel Keogh presented his opinion that attacking Scientology is "a little bit bullshit" because, in his view, other religions can be equally "kooky". During the segment Mr Keogh said, "The reason a lot of people mock Scientology is because it was created by the science fiction writer L. Rob Hubbard [pointing at the book 'Dianetics' by L. Rob Hubbard], but why is that any weirder than those religions invented by an allegedly illiterate businessman [holding up the Quran], a bunch of fishermen [holding up the Bible], or a guy who read the words of God out of a hat [holding up the Book of Mormon]?".

I understand you considered Mr Keogh's claim that the Bible was written by "a bunch of fishermen" to be inaccurate as it was the product of a large number of people over many centuries. The producers of Hungry Beast have advised that this claim represented Mr Keogh's opinion. They have advised that the segment was not intended as serious academic scholarship on the collective authorship of what came to be known as the New Testament. I understand some of Jesus' key disciples had been fishermen and were involved in passing on knowledge about his life which became the New Testament. I am advised that Mr Keogh's visual reference to the Bible was intended as shorthand for the New Testament, and his reference to "a bunch of fishermen" was intended as shorthand for its collective authorship.

On review, Audience & Consumer Affairs considers that the exaggerated shorthand used by Mr Keogh was acceptable within the context of opinion content. Although it is not precisely accurate to describe the authors of the Bible as "a bunch of fishermen", it was an exaggeration based in some truth, and was clearly presented as a hyperbolic claim designed to amuse and bolster Mr Keogh's argument. Audience & Consumer Affairs is satisfied that the segment was consistent with the editorial standards for opinion content.

The second segment to which you refer was the regular 'Beast File' segment. This segment was categorised as topical and factual content, which is subject to section 7 of the Editorial Policies. The standard for accuracy which applies to this content category is outlined in section 7.4.2(a) of the Editorial Policies as follows: "Every reasonable effort must be made to ensure that factual content is accurate and in context".

This particular 'Beast File' examined the Catholic Church's response to child sexual abuse and the historical church documents showing that the problem has existed for almost 2000 years. On review, Audience & Consumer Affairs does not agree with your suggestion that the segment implied that the Bible was the creation or sole property of the Catholic Church, or that the Catholic Church changed the Bible in the third century. Furthermore, the segment did not imply that the Catholic Church was the root cause of paedophilia, as you suggest.

I note your comments about the dates of composition of the Bible and the Didache. The relevant statement in the segment was as follows: "But the Church's own paper trail shows it has known about and failed to deal with the problem for 2000 years. The first recorded link between priests and paedophilia can be found in a manual for church officials from around AD 60 called Didache. Older than the New Testament, it made the rule clear: 'Thou shalt not seduce young boys'".

While I understand some parts of the New Testament were written as early as the middle of the first century, as you point out, the later parts have been dated to the close of the first century or the start of the second century. There is considerable uncertainty as to the date of composition of the Didache. However, the producers of Hungry Beast have provided several sources in support of the claim that it was written "around AD 60", and Audience & Consumer Affairs is satisfied that every reasonable effort was made to ensure that this claim was supported by evidence. Given this, we are satisfied that the description of the Didache as being "older than the New Testament" was consistent with the editorial standard for accuracy.

Nonetheless, while we are satisfied that both segment adhered to the relevant editorial standards, please be assured that your comments have been noted and conveyed to the producers of Hungry Beast and ABC Television management. Thank you for taking the time to write.

Yours sincerely

Simon Melkman
ABC Audience & Consumer Affairs