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Wednesday, October 10, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

A few months ago, the pastor of a local (Montgomery, AL) Baptist church was found dead in his home:

Lt. Mark Drinkard, a police spokesman, said the Reverend Gary M- Aldridge was found about 10 a-m by a member of his church who became concerned after he failed to show up for church services.

[…]

Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright, in a newspaper interview, hinted that the minister may have been the victim of foul play.

Other reporting at the time indicated that Aldridge had been strangled and that the crime scene had odd elements to it, but few details were released. Some suggestions were made that there was a killer on the loose, but others indicated that there had been no forced entry. At the time the few details that leaked out in the press were suggestive either a bizarre murder or, I speculated at the time, a sexual encounter gone bad.

Much of this was of specific interest to me given that the church in question is less than ten minutes from my home and the neighborhood in which Aldridge lived is even closer. As such, the notion of a gruesome murder nearby was somewhat disconcerting.

However, it ends up that the sexual hypothesis was more on target, although instead of it being an encounter gone awry, the Smoking Gun now has documents to suggest that the event was of the, well, solo variety.

Indeed, the Montgomery Advertiser reported yesterday: Police: No foul play in Aldridge’s death

Police have closed their investigation into the death of the Rev. Gary Aldridge.

Detectives determined that no foul play existed in the case and therefore no crime had been committed, according to a news release from the Montgomery Police Department.

[…]

Forensic results indicate Aldridge was alone at the time of his death, the police release states. A report by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences states the final pathological diagnoses for Aldridge’s death as “accidental mechanical asphyxia,” according to the release.

I note this story for three reasons:

First, despite one’s politics or religion, it really is unseemly to make fun of the story, despite the absurd (if not comedic on some levels) elements of the situation. However, the fact that event ended in a needless death should drain the humor out of the story. Nonetheless, some have been unable to resist (for example).

Second (and this was the original reason I started the post): the reportage of this story was, in my opinion, somewhat irresponsible. The initial suggestions were that some very terrible thing may have happened and that a very violent criminal might, therefore, be on the loose. Even if foul play was suspected, the evidence at the scene, as detailed in the autopsy report, clearly would indicate that death was likely the result of a sexual encounter/event, not a violent crime that would potentially threaten others in the community. While it wasn’t necessarily the case that reporters needed to provide every sordid detail, the stories could have been written in such a way as to give a better picture of what might have happened. Either local reporters were blinded by the fact that the victim was a pastor, or they sought to protect his reputation because he had been a pastor. Either way, I would argue that it was poor journalism.

Third, this is yet another example (which leads to the ridicule noted in point one) of a pastor who clearly was not as wholesome as he presented himself to be to his congregation. Yes, this behavior in question is certainly better than visiting a prostitute or engaging in an affair or any number of other actions that clergy have been found guilty of in recent years. Still, this is yet another example of the disjuncture between the power of God to transform man that is preached weekly in Baptist and other evangelical churches and the apparent lack of transformation of the men preaching those messages. I cannot say for sure what Aldridge had preached from his pulpit, but having spent most of my life in Baptist and like churches, I have a pretty good idea. At a minimum, it is no wonder that so many find the Christian faith to be unappealing, as there are so many examples like this. I don’t know what the appropriate fix is, if there is one. Certainly, part of the issue here is the simple fact that human being are imperfect, and remain such regardless of their religious predilections. And, of course, the issue isn’t just sexual. There was the report earlier this week about money and likely corruption at Oral Robert University and probably most church goes have experienced pastors who became overly fond of their positions, letting themselves become the focal point of the church.

I don’t really know what my central point is here, per se, aside from the following: a) each of these stories is rather disappointing, b) it is no wonder that many find religion in general problematic, and c) it raises question about key issues within the church including central theological tenets (how can pastors preach the power of God to change lives, if the pastors themselves have their own dark secrets that are never changed) as well as the structure of churches wherein pastors are in positions of power for long period of time with all the focus an adulation being on them.

Update: I didn’t notice this earlier, from today’s Advertiser:

The medical examiner who conducted Aldridge’s autopsy said Friday the long wait for the autopsy findings was not unusual.

“These things happen,” Boudreau said. “We see probably two of these a year. If you’re not used to seeing that sort of thing, it’s probably unusual.”

Egads-and that’s in little Montgomery, AL. One can only imagine what MEs in large metropolitan areas deal with…

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Saturday, October 6, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

The AP has a piece on a brewing scandal at Oral Roberts University (Scandal brewing at Oral Roberts) that looks to threaten the school’s existence and centers around financial shenanigans by Roberts’ son and his family. For example:

Richard Roberts is accused of illegal involvement in a local political campaign and lavish spending at donors’ expense, including numerous home remodeling projects, use of the university jet for his daughter’s senior trip to the Bahamas, and a red Mercedes convertible and a Lexus SUV for his wife, Lindsay.

She is accused of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on clothes, awarding nonacademic scholarships to friends of her children and sending scores of text messages on university-issued cell phones to people described in the lawsuit as “underage males.”

The whole thing has the feel of sultanistic dictators and their families, like the Somozas in Nicaragua or the Duvaliers in Haiti, wherein the leader runs a situation (a university or country) like it is their own personal piggy bank while all the while pretending like they are serving some greater good.

Of course, the fact that Oral Roberts thought it was a good idea to name the university after himself in the first place underscores that perhaps he wasn’t as interested in glorifying God as he claimed. And while one can hand the family business down from father to child, there is something problematic about handing a university over:

Oral Roberts is 89 and lives in California. He holds the title of chancellor, but the university describes him as semi-retired, and his son presides over day-to-day operations on the campus,

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the LAT: Rev. Billy Graham remains in hospital

The Rev. Billy Graham experienced a second episode of intestinal bleeding but remained in fair condition at a hospital in Asheville.

Graham in 88.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor


Texas church cancels gay vet’s memorial - Yahoo! News

Officials at the nondenominational High Point Church knew that Cecil Howard Sinclair was gay when they offered to host his service, said his sister, Kathleen Wright. But after his obituary listed his life partner as one of his survivors, she said, it was called off.

“It’s a slap in the face. It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re sorry he died, but he’s gay so we can’t help you,’” she said Friday.

Wright said High Point offered to hold the service for Sinclair because their brother is a janitor there. Sinclair, who served in the first Gulf War, died Monday at age 46 from an infection after surgery to prepare him for a heart transplant.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Gary Simons, said no one knew Sinclair, who was not a church member, was gay until the day before the Thursday service, when staff members putting together his video tribute saw pictures of men “engaging in clear affection, kissing and embracing.”

Simons said the church believes homosexuality is a sin, and it would have appeared to endorse that lifestyle if the service had been held there.

Sorry to deploy a cliche, but I have a hard time thinking that they asked themselves, “What would Jesus do?”

Further, let’s suppose that the pictures in the tribute showed Sinclair “engaging in clear affect, kissing and embracing” of a female who was his “long time” yet unmarried partner, would the service have been canceled? I suspect not.

It isn’t as if the slide show was going to be shown during the Sunday morning worship service.

And, I must confess, statements like the following are rather difficult to take:

“Had we known it on the day they first spoke about it — yes, we would have declined then. It’s not that we didn’t love the family.”

I would guess that they aren’t feeling too loved at the moment. In fairness, it should be noted that the church offered to pay for the service at another site, including food and such.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Foreign Policy has The List.

Most are just silly and rank up their with the utterances of Pat Robertson (for some examples, see here, here, here and here-not a comprehensive list, btw).

The one about Polio, however, is simply tragic.

h/t: Betsy Newmark.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

They can take the title away: Nepal ‘living goddess’ loses status

A 10-year-old Nepalese girl was stripped of her title as a living goddess because she traveled overseas to promote a documentary about the centuries-old tradition, an official said Tuesday.

Sajani Shakya had her status revoked because she broke with tradition by leaving the country, said Jaiprasad Regmi, chief of the government trust which manages the affairs of the living goddesses.

Oops.

Who knew being a goddess was like being Miss USA? A shame for this particular young lady that Donald Trump wasn’t on the board-he has been known to be lenient on these types of issues.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the Seattle Times: Nation & World | Pope changes rules on papal elections

Pope Benedict XVI has changed the rules for electing popes, making it potentially harder to name a successor but ensuring that when the white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel, the new pontiff will have broad support among cardinals.

Benedict issued a one-page document in Latin on Tuesday requiring that two-thirds of the cardinals in a conclave agree on the new pontiff. The move was a return to Vatican tradition and reversed Pope John Paul II’s 1996 decision to let an absolute majority decide on the next pope if they remained deadlocked after 33 rounds of balloting.

Well, maybe not so much reform as the reversal of previous reform.

I guess this means an even longer wait as we watch the Popestack when Benedict passes.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via US News: Dobson Offers Insight on 2008 Republican Hopefuls

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson appeared to throw cold water on a possible presidential bid by former Sen. Fred Thompson while praising former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also weighing a presidential run, in a phone interview Tuesday.

“Everyone knows he’s conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for,” Dobson said of Thompson. “[But] I don’t think he’s a Christian; at least that’s my impression,” Dobson added, saying that such an impression would make it difficult for Thompson to connect with the Republican Party’s conservative Christian base and win the GOP nomination.

[…]

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson’s claim. He said that, while Dobson didn’t believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless “has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian—someone who talks openly about his faith.”

“We use that word—Christian—to refer to people who are evangelical Christians,” Schneeberger added. “Dr. Dobson wasn’t expressing a personal opinion about his reaction to a Thompson candidacy; he was trying to ‘read the tea leaves’ about such a possibility.”

[…]

While making it clear he was not endorsing any Republican presidential candidate, Dobson, who is considered the most politically powerful evangelical figure in the country, also said that Gingrich was the “brightest guy out there” and “the most articulate politician on the scene today.”

In regards to the US News headline, may I say: Dobson offered insight into Dobson far more than he offered insight into the candidates. Indeed, I would note for someone who is considered a religious leader to casually state one’s “impression” about another’s faith is rather irresponsible and presumptive.

I would further say that while Dobson has the right to support whichever candidate he likes, this is a really good example of the problems some (many?) religious leaders get into when they start trying to be political brokers. By stating who and who isn’t a Christian (by Dobson’s definition, I might add) and linking that to a candidate’s desirability while simultaneously giving support to another candidate who has had questionable moral behavior creates a rather odd synergy.

Dobson clearly fancies himself a key player in Republican politics (if not national politics in general). That he has had influence over time is undeniable, but I think his overall significance is not as great as he (and some of his critics, for that matter) think it is. Now, I think that Dobson’s basic motivation is legitimate: he has particular policy goals and seeks to influence who holds office for the purpose of pursuing those goals. The problem, of course, is that when one pursues such a course in the name of a religious perspective, then one runs a risk of the political choices redounding negatively to one’s religion, as politics never quite lives up to religious moral standards. As such, one can bring attacks upon one’s faith by the political stances one takes. Not only can that make one look like an opportunists, a sycophant and/or a hypocrite, it can bring, by extension, shame (or, at least, serious public questions) about one’s religion.

For example, in this case Dobson comes across as intolerant and overly judgmental of Thompson (which is a general criticism of Christianity in the first place). Further, non-Christians (and Christians) can rightfully ask how Dobson, whose ministry is called Focus on the Family, and whose life work has been to extol the traditional nuclear family, can be as cozy as he has been with Gingrich, who hasn’t exactly done the best job of focusing on his own familial responsibilities.

Note: I am not saying that that disqualifies Gingrich, but rather that it is odd, to put it kindly, that Dobson can publicly criticize Thompson for not being evangelical enough, while giving Newt two “get out of marriage free”/”get out of adultery free” cards (at least in terms of public perception).

For on the one hand, while Dobson has, as I noted, legitimate policy interests, he should place the reputation of his faith above short-term political gains and for some time, Dobson hasn’t (in my opinion) done a very good job on that front (another recent example would be his dismissive attitude in the Mark Foley scandal).

For Dobson to be so smitten with Gingrich is probably as much about the other candidates as it is about Gingrich, who has never struck me as an especially evangelical fellow (and I have paid close attention to his career for some time). However, Romney is a Mormon, Rudy is, well, Rudy, and the rest haven’t got much of a shot. Since Gingrich was willing to do the mea culpa routine on the radio with Dobson a few weeks back coupled with the lack of an alternative, I guess gave Newt the Dobson slot by default.

And really, I am not sure why Dobson, per se, is making such a big deal about how “evangelical” a candidate is. I would argue that we have only had two overtly evangelical Presidents in recent memory: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. If we are using that variable our (admittedly small) sample doesn’t tell us much about the presence of evangelicalism in the White House in terms of governance and public policy. And by “evangelical” I mean overt, and repeated, references to ideas like “being born again” and to Jesus Christ specifically, and as part of their public and political philosophy (something Carter and Bush both did as a candidate and as president). Plenty (indeed, all) Presidents have used a great deal of religious language, which was often overtly Christian or could be construed as evangelical.

h/t: OTB

Technorati Tags: James Dobson, Newt Gingrich, Focus on the Family, Fed Thomspon

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Matthew Shugart e-mails to point me to the blog of Jim Davila (PaleoJudaica.com) who has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard and who is a Lecturer in Early Jewish studies at St. Mary’s College at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  In his lengthy and interesting post he quotes correspondence from Richard Bauckham, a Professor of New Testament  Studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor (also at St. Andrews).

Among the various things that Bauckham had to say, I found the discussion of names to be especially interesting, given my earlier post:

We have much more evidence about this than was used by the programme makers. We have a data base of about 3000 named persons (2625 men, 328 women). Of the 2625 men, the name Joseph was borne by 218 or 8.3%. (It is the second most popular Jewish male name, after Simon/Simeon.) The name Judah was borne by 164 or 6.2%. The name Jesus was borne by 99 or 3.4%. The name Matthew was borne 62 or 2.4 %. Of the 328 named women (women’s names were much less often recorded than men’s), a staggering 70 or 21.4% were called Mary (Mariam, Maria, Mariame, Mariamme).

It is surely obvious [One would think, but apparently not-Ed.] that, considering the enormous popularity of all the names on these ossuaries, the probability that they refer to the same people as those so named in the New Testament, must be very low.

With regard to the second claim, the programme makers have somewhat stretched the evidence.

The most common Greek form of the Hebrew name Mariam (which would have been Mary Magdalene’s Hebrew name) was Mariame or Mariamme. A less common Greek form of the name was Maria, which is the form the New Testament uses (for Mary Magdalene and all the other Maries it mentions).

The form of the name on the ossuary in question is Mariamenou. This is a Greek genitive case, used to indicate that the ossuary belongs to Mary (it means ‘Mary’s’ or ‘belonging to Mary’). The nominative would be Mariamenon. Mariamenon is a diminutive form, used as a form of endearment. The neuter gender is normal in diminutives used for women.

This diminutive, Mariamenon, would seem to have been formed from the name Mariamene, a name which is attested twice elsewhere (in the Babatha archive and in the Jewish catacombs at Beth She’arim). It is an unusual variant of Mariame. In the Babatha document it is spelt with a long e in the penultimate syllable, but in the Bet She’arim inscription the penultimate syllable has a short e. This latter form could readily be contracted to the form Mariamne, which is found, uniquely, in the Acts of Philip.

So we have, on the one hand, a woman known by the diminutive Mariamenon, in the ossuary, and, on the other hand, Mary Magdalen, who is always called in the Greek of the New Testament Maria but seems to be called in a much later source Mariamne. Going by the names alone they could be the same woman, but the argument for this is tenuous.

If you are interested in this subject, the whole post is worth a read.  Davis also posted on the subject here, which includes some links to some resources of possible interest.

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By Dr. Steven Taylor

Supposedly James Cameron has found it (via the BBC): Jesus tomb found, says film-maker:

Jesus had a son named Judah and was buried alongside Mary Magdalene, according to a new documentary by Hollywood film director James Cameron.

The film examines a tomb found near Jerusalem in 1980 which producers say belonged to Jesus and his family.

Speaking in New York, the Oscar-winning Titanic director said statistical tests and DNA analysis backed this view.

Setting aside any theological questions here, this is ridiculous.  First, the only way DNA analysis would be of use is if we had a confirmed sample of Jesus’ DNA to use in a test.  That a DNA test proved that the people in the tomb were related is hardly a shocker.

A confluence of names is hardly sufficient to make these kinds of claims, yet Cameron thinks it does, demonstrating that Cameron’s critical thinking skills are wanting:

Archaeologists said that the burial cave was probably that of a Jewish family with similar names to that of Jesus.

But Mr Cameron said the combination of names found on the tombs convinced him of their heritage.

[…]

According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, six of those coffins were marked with the names Mary; Matthew; Jesua son of Joseph; Mary; Jofa (Joseph, Jesus’ brother); and Judah son of Jesua.[…]

“Mariamene is Mary Magdalene - that’s the Ringo, that’s what sets this whole film in motion,” he said.

What? There has ever been only one woman in all of history named “Mariamene”?

And back to the DNA thing, that strikes me as some techno-speak to make this all sound more scientific and to distract from the fact that whole argument is predicated on one woman’s name:

The documentary asserts that tests on samples from two of the coffins show Jesus and Mary Magdalene were likely to have been buried in them and were a couple.

How does a DNA test prove that two corpses were a couple?  Unless they were intimate just prior to their simultaneous death, I am unclear on how genetic material might have been transferred, and I am guessing that this many years later such an issue would be difficult to discover.  Now, DNA tests could have proven that the two corpses were the parents of the Judah corpse, but again:  a family tomb is hardly a shocking discovery, but doesn’t prove the identity of anybody.

I mean really, this doesn’t even rise to the level of freshman-level essay argumentation here.
Update:: The AFP version of the stories has a few more details (Tomb could be of Jesus, wife and son: directors):

Jacobovici, director, producer and writer of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” and his team obtained two sets of samples from the ossuaries for DNA and chemical analysis. The first set consisted of bits of matter taken from the “Jesus Son of Joseph” and “Mariamene e Mara” ossuaries. The second set consisted of patina, a chemical film encrustation on one of the limestone boxes.

The human remains were analyzed by Carney Matheson, a scientist at the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada. Mitochondrial DNA examination determined the individual in the Jesus ossuary and the person in the ossuary linked to Mary Magdalene were not related.

So, really, all they have proven is that the “Jesus” and “Mary” weren’t related. Even the notion that they were a “couple” is a leap. They haven’t, it would seem, tested “Judah.”

More on the names:

Israeli archaeologist and professor Amos Kloner, who documented the tomb as the Jewish burial cave of a well-off family more than 10 years ago, is adamant there is no evidence to support claims that it was the burial site of Jesus.

“I’m a scholar. I do scholarly work which has nothing to do with documentary film-making. There’s no way to take a religious story and to turn it into something scientific,” he told AFP in a telephone interview.

“I still insist that it is a regular burial chamber from the 1st century BC,” Kloner said, adding that the names were a coincidence.

“Who says that ‘Maria’ is Magdalena and ‘Judah’ is the son of Jesus? It cannot be proved. These are very popular and common names from the 1st century BC,” said the academic at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

Indeed, the basis of the theory would appear to be the Da Vinci Code, and pretty much nothing else.

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