Friday, October 30, 2009

Fruit and nuts

Priests and prophets have never got along.

Ever since Moses came down from the mountain to find Aaron cavorting in front of an ornate bookend, every prophet has made it his business to condemn the priests of his own time. And the priests have returned the favour. A prophet is basically a heretic with a following.

Since Christ's day, the term "prophet" has been out of favour in Christendom. Instead we've had various kinds of "reformers", many of whom have also been condemned by the church of their day. The rules are reasonably clear. You can have all the private communion you want with God, but your preaching and argument has to be grounded firmly and solely in scripture. Those who want to give their personal revelations a comparable status, generally have to split completely from mainstream Christianity. (Like Islam, or Mormonism.)

Sometimes it can be hard to tell, at a glance, on which side of the dividing line a given Holy Figure stands.

Brian Tamaki - or Bishop Brian Tamaki, as he calls himself - is the founder and leader of the ominously-named Destiny Church. It's a vaguely Pentecostal organisation, with branches in New Zealand and Australia. Tamaki preaches a type of prosperity theology, and accordingly lives the high life as a demonstration of his own righteousness.

Yesterday, he was in the news for conducting a ceremony in which 700 "spiritual sons" swore personal fealty to him and subscribed to a 1300-word manifesto specifying how they must conduct themselves towards him at all times.

Now, some people have been calling Destiny a cult for some time. Yesterday the Herald sat on the fence: the ludicrous Garth George broke out the c-word, but the more measured journalists and editorial writers refrained from comment. TV3 did a fine hatchet-job. Today, Destiny is complaining that TV3's anonymous commentator "misrepresented" the church.

I heard part of that report (I was cooking at the time), and it strikes me that the things TV3 is accused of misrepresenting pale in comparison to what I heard Tamaki saying in his own words.

Tamaki claims equivalence to respectable religions ("If we are a cult then the Catholics, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists and the Pentecostals are all cults as well").

And I'm disappointed to see that a surprising number of supposedly intelligent atheists are willing to let him get away with that. Editing the Herald, for instance, points out that it's not in the business of criticising random nutcases (fair enough), but then goes on to grant Tamaki the equivalence he craves: "The old saying goes that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. A similar sort of thing could be said about religion: a 'valid church' is a cult with fancy robes and the favour of journalists." The lunatic-Libertarian Not PC makes the same mistake: "He's not doing anything that hasn’t been done before by other religious leaders".

Now, that's a line that could only have been written by someone who not only has no understanding of religion, but also doesn't really believe that there is anything to understand. I guess it just goes to show how un-seriously religion is taken nowadays.

Because what Tamaki claims goes far, far beyond what any of those religions claims:
"What [God] loves, I love. He loves people, he hates the world. I hate the world."
Look at that claim for a moment.

There is no wiggle-room there. No interpretation, no reference to a primary source. It's a direct, unarguable claim to know the mind of God. Even the much-mocked Doctrine of Papal Infallibility doesn't give that kind of authority to any one person.

Catholics and Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Pentecostalists - all claim to communicate with God, but none identify with Him. That claim - private revelation that trumps anything you know or think you know about God - puts Tamaki beyond priesthood and firmly into the "prophet" category.

Couple that with people swearing personal loyalty to him - not to the office of the bishop, but to Brian Tamaki personally - and I'd say the difference between "church" and "cult", in this case at least, is pretty clear-cut.


Jantar said...

I'm not sure that argument washes. Apart from the fact that various (mostly Protestant) Christian churches claim that the Bible is literally God's 'word' and that THEY are the only ones who interpret this meassage correctly, there is also the small matter of the Islamic faith, which is based on Mohammed's directly taking God's dictation. Yes, Mohammed is considered to be a prophet and not a preacher but most people would consider Islam a church and not a cult.

vet said...

Yes, but Islam doesn't claim to be Christianity - it's a whole different thing. And while you can't debate with Mohammed, Muslims can (and do) argue endlessly with one another.

I know a lot of Christians get quite worked up about the uniqueness of their church and the inspiration of their own interpretation, but there's a difference (I think) between individual church members getting carried away, and the head of a whole order making that claim and - and this is the important part - effectively foreclosing all debate on the subject.

As practised by "real" churches, theology is a peer-reviewed discipline. As I mentioned, you can have all the prophetic insights you like, but in the end you have to be able to defend your conclusions, using scripture, from those who use the same scripture to dispute them. Tamaki has short-circuited that process - his flock can't debate with him - it's literally forbidden.

Anonymous said...

iirc his flock is also supposed to defend Bishop from the ramifications of his mistakes.

Now that's an indication of a closed mind.


James said...


I think you're right about a lot of this. Editing the Herald is basically a media blog, which means I can't just write about how crazy Destiny is without going rather out of scope.

Personally, as I said in my second post on the matter, I think Tamaki and his church are bad enough that the media doesn't have to go rabid to make them look bad. If our purpose is discourage this kind of movement, surely the old line about the 'oxygen of publicity' is on the money here. I suspect not a single one of the '700 sons' read or watched any of the coverage and thought, "Oh, they're right, this is all a bit silly."

vet said...

S: I'm not sure about the details of the Pact - I don't entirely trust the Herald on that subject. Although I suspect it's as you say, I don't know if it hasn't been misrepresented somehow.

James, thanks for looking in. You're probably right about the ineffectiveness of publicity, but I still think it's a mistake to say (or to let Tamaki get away with the claim) that there's no difference between churches.