The World Is Broken. Have a Beer. Happy New Year.

“Once,” [I said,] “There were no predators, no prey. Only harmony. There were no quakes, no storms, everything in balance. In the beginning, time was all at once and forever–no past, present, and future, no death. We broke it all.”

[Police] Chief Porter tried to take the fresh Heineken from me.

I held on to it. “Sir, do you know what sucks the worst about the human condition?”

Bill Burton said, “Taxes.”

“It’s even worse than that,” I told him.

Manuel said, “Gasoline costs too much, and low mortgage rates are gone.”

“What sucks the worst is…this world was a gift to us, and we broke it, and part of the deal is that if we want things right, we have to fix it ourselves. But we can’t. We try, but we can’t.”

I started to cry. The tears surprised me. I thought I was done with tears for the duration.

Manuel put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Maybe we can fix it, Odd. You know? Maybe.”

I shook my head. “No. We’re broken. A broken thing can’t fix itself.”

“Maybe it can,” said Karla, putting a hand on my other shoulder.

I sat there, just a faucet. All snot and tears. Embarrassed but not enough to get my act together.

“I’m a mess,” I apologized.

Karla said, “Me too.”

“I could use a beer,” Manuel said.

“You’re working,” Bill Burton reminded him. Then he said, “Get me one, too.”

Dean Koontz, Forever Odd, pp. 321 – 323

Misanthropic Morse II: Not a Medical Doctor

“You’re not a ‘medical’ doctor, sir?” asked Morse [of the suspect].

“No. I just wrote a Ph.D. thesis –you know how these things are.”

“On?”

“Promise not to laugh?”

“Try me.”

“‘The comparative body-weight of the great tit within the variable habitats of its North European distribution.'”

Morse didn’t laugh.

Original research, was that?”

“No other kind, as far as I know.”

“And you were examined in this?”

“You don’t get a doctorate otherwise.”

“But the person who examined you — well, he couldn’t know as much as you, could he? By definition, surely?”

She, actually. It’s the — well, they say it is — the way you go about it — your research.”

Colin Dexter, The Way Through the Woods: An Inspector Morse Mystery, 1992, pp. 173 – 174

Yes, Virginia, There Is A … Wyoming

Ready for the latest fun conspiracy theory?

Wyoming doesn’t exist.

This theory uses the simple but brilliant logic that unless you have first- or second-hand experience with a thing (in this case, a state), then you cannot really accept it as proved. First-hand experience is demanded in the question: “Have you ever been to Wyoming?” Second-hand experience: “Do you know anyone from Wyoming?”

Delightfully, “One definition of Wyoming in the online Urban Dictionary says the Cowboy State is a fictional place and that people who try to drive north over the border will find themselves mysteriously transported to Canada, confused and sans clothing” (ibid). So, it’s a sort of Wyoming Triangle. This tickles me even more because, What about Montana? Montana is between Wyoming and the Canadian border. Do the conspirators not realize this? Is Montana so obscure that it doesn’t even get its own conspiracy?

Well, I am happy to tell you kids, that Wyoming does exist. I know because I live in its equally obscure neighboring state of Idaho. Wyoming is actually only a few hours from me, and if I drive an hour north, I can see the mountains on the border.

For further proof, here are myself and Mr. Mugrage (cropped out for privacy) standing in Wyoming, overlooking Jackson Hole (note the sign), on a big anniversary recently. The whole picture is in Wyoming, but for those who need extra proof, I have an added an arrow that helpfully points to Wyoming.

It’s cooold in Wyoming!

Finally, here is a trailer for a movie that is set in Wyoming:

At last, a conspiracy theory that I can personally put to rest. This might be the first (and, possibly, last) one.

Christmas Tree Rant II

I hope you are not tired of hearing me rant about pagan cultures and why Christians should not think of pagan cultural practices a contaminating substance. This topic may be starting to seem as if it’s relevant only to anthropology geeks like myself, who use their spare time to write anthropology-heavy novels about people who were pagan by default because they lived in a time when there was no other way to be.

But, on the contrary, I think it is very relevant to everyone. There are modern-day tribal people who would like to follow Christ without giving up their entire cultural identity. There are neo-pagans who, living in our technological, post-Christian world, turn to the religions of their ancestors (or a personalized version thereof) because they are looking for something that it appears neither secularism nor the modern evangelical church can offer.

There are Christians who, because of an incomplete understanding of these issues, put stumbling blocks in the path of both the aforesaid groups and in the path of their fellow believers who would like to have a whole, rounded culture. And finally, there are enemies of Christ who would like nothing better than to portray His followers as puritanical, culturally vacuous, colonizing Western imperialists. And who knows, perhaps they actually believe that they are.

All of these people could benefit from a deeper understanding of how formerly pagan practices carry meaning in the modern day. That’s why I have said that, although Christmas trees are not actually pagan, I would still have one if they were. And I will go farther. My kids and I make jack-o-lanterns too. Call, and raise you Hallowe’en. Also, I bake Christmas cookies, hide Easter eggs (!), say “bless you” when someone sneezes, and had bridesmaids at my wedding.

The following is a re-working of a book review I once wrote, which I hope will help to clarify some of the issues. Enjoy! Then go out and kiss under the mistletoe!

Review of Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

by Frank Viola and George Barna, BarnaBooks/Tyndale, 2008

This book examines a variety of common church practices. It really needs to be reviewed chapter by chapter, because some of the chapters raise good questions about complex topics (for example the one about baptism), while others are just laughable (for example the one about why it’s a sin to dress up for church). But lacking the space for such a detailed approach, I would like to focus on a particular assumption that underlies this book and its scare-mongering cover: the idea that anything that started out as a pagan practice is unlawful for Christians. (The key word here is “started out.”)

In the acknowledgements, Frank Viola tells us the origin of this book: “I left the institutional church … I sought to understand how the Christian church ended up in its present state. For years I tried to get my hands on a documented book that traced the origin of every nonbiblical practice we Christians observe every week.” (xiii) Notice, Viola had already decided that institutional Christianity was thoroughly broken. He “knew” that most things most churches were doing, were unbiblical (they may be too, but not in the way Voila thinks). If these practices did not originate in the Bible, they must have come from somewhere else. Since Viola could not find the book he was looking for, he researched and wrote it himself. To his credit, he acknowledges the limits of his research and hopes that true scholars will pick up where he left off.

Viola’s experience is re-created within each chapter. First, we are told that whatever practice the chapter is treating (church buildings, sermons, etc.) is unbiblical. Then, there follows a brief historical survey of how such a practice developed from paganism. Then, we are given the real reasons the authors dislike the practice: arguments that it is undemocratic, unbiblical, or both. These later arguments are real arguments and deserve to be answered. But they are irrelevant to whether a given practice is pagan. If Jesus commands us to do something that the pagans also do (e.g., be shrewd in dealing with people – Luke 16:8 – 9), then that practice is biblical, right? A practice should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of what it resembles or what it developed from. But in the authors’ minds, if they can show that something developed from a similar thing that was pagan, they have got at least halfway to proving it is unbiblical. And I fear that many American Christians would agree with them.

Interestingly, modern neopagans share this assumption. (You can find their articles on the Internet.) They delight in pointing out the similarities between Christian and pagan practices, and especially the borrowings. They assume that by pointing these out, they have proved that Christianity is not unique.

G.K. Chesterton, in his book The Everlasting Man, has blown this argument apart. He argues that human beings were created by God to do certain things. Human beings, wherever they live and whatever their religion, will do these things. They will have festivals and parties at certain times of the year. They will pray. They will make beautiful clothes and dress up sometimes. When circumstances permit, they will bake cakes. All this is part of the creation order and the cultural mandate, in addition to being lots of fun. The tragedy of pagans, Chesterton continues, is that they do not really have anything or anyone to do these things to or about. They are forever in search of an entity and an event that matches their huge, God-given, distinctively human capacity for celebration and worship. Eventually, it all falls through and degenerates into violence, or superstitious fear, or a sexual free for all.

But God does not command us to stop doing legitimate and lawful things when we leave the pagan gods to worship Christ. He redeems these things! For the first time, we do them for a good reason. So once, we baked hot cross buns unto the Spring Equinox. Now, we bake them unto Christ, and eat with even more joy in our hearts. Once we sang songs and made art unto our pagan gods. Now we sing and make them unto Christ!

Let me hasten to add that of course some pagan practices cannot be carried over into the Christian life. Worshipping other gods is out. So is temple prostitution, consulting the dead, divination, practicing magic, and making images to be worshipped. All of these are explicitly forbidden in the Bible, so we do not need to discuss their origins to see that they are unbiblical. Oh, and don’t let me forget a really big one: sacrificing our children to our gods, whatever those gods might be.

But there are a host of human activities that are not unlawful in themselves, are not condemned in Scripture, yet were certainly done by pagans before they were done by Christians (or even Jews). What I think the authors fail to realize (and what many of us in this modern age fail to realize) is that every human activity, good or bad, was originally done by pagans. Think about the wide range of things this encompasses. It includes cooking, medicine, self-defense, pregnancy and childbirth, coming of age, wedding ceremonies, engineering and construction. It is going to be awfully difficult to find one of these life passages that is not marked by practices that were once pagan.

Pagans are human beings, and they do everything that human beings do. So, art, formal clothing, dancing, and yes, sacred buildings, priests, and sermons are not necessarily forbidden to us just because pagans do them. We will have to find stronger arguments if we want to get rid of these things. What we cannot do is strengthen a weak argument against a practice by tacking the word “pagan” on it. This is dishonest, and frankly it is unfair to pagans. Why blame them for the fact that you don’t like liturgical robes?

Link Plus Rant, Coming Up!

The Link

Is anyone on earth not an immigrant?

(Someone sent me this link because the article’s reference to migrations reminded them of my book The Long Guest. I’m flattered.)

The Rant

If you think about this question for two seconds, the obvious answer is “no.” If people dispersed from wherever they arose (or were created), then we are all “immigrants” in the sense that our ancestors have moved from place to place. A lot.

Two thoughts about this.

  1. I have never thought of the term “immigrant” as derogatory. The title of this article seems to imply that it is usually used derogatorily, and that the article is going to subvert that. And I have heard others speak as though “immigrant” is a slur. For the record, I have never thought of it as a slur and that is not how I use the word. In fourth grade, a school I attended did a whole unit on “immigrants.” It was a historical unit about the 19th- and 20th-century waves of immigration to America, first from Ireland and Italy, and then from Eastern Europe. I did a report about my Dutch ancestors emigrating to the United States. They are the ones I first think of when I hear the word “immigrant.” It’s a term of pride, encouraging us to think about our distinctive national origins, our families’ stories of assimilation, and how great it is that we can live in the United States and be Americans, while still retaining some of the distinctive traditions from our ancestors of two, three, or four generations back. I am also happy to think that the United States has often been a place for refugees to flee to. The prime example of this is people fleeing Europe during the 30s and 40s, but there are many more recent examples. Of course we cannot take in an infinite number of people, instantly and without limitations, just as no family, no matter how hospitable, can simultaneously host an unlimited number of house guests. But this does not mean I am “anti-immigration.” It is, in general, a positive thing. To new immigrants, my response would be along the lines of “welcome” and “I know assimilation is hard, but eventually I hope you like it here as much as I do.”
  2. As the article points out, the history of humanity is a history of exploration and people movements. This means that it has also been a history of people assimilating, intermarrying, displacing, and engaging in conquest of other peoples. (I put that on a scale from least to most disruptive.) Obviously, the details of how this worked out in each case depended upon a lot of things, like the numbers involved, the natural resources possessed by one side or the other, cultural matches and clashes, technology, and other kinds of power. (See Thomas Sowell’s excellent Discrimination and Disparities for more on this.) But the point is, everybody’s ancestors were driven out of somewhere, and everybody’s ancestors at some point conquered or colonized somebody. Therefore, it makes no sense to go to people whose ancestors were recently (say, within the last few centuries) colonizers, and to tell them that they are living on stolen land. Nearly everyone is living on stolen land. Also, where are the former conquerors going to go when they vacate this land? Back to the place their ancestors came from? I think it’s a tad crowded now and they wouldn’t be welcome there either. Also, what about the many, many (probably the majority) of people in whose veins flows the blood of both conqueror and conquered, native and newcomer? It just doesn’t make sense.

Thank you. This has been a public service announcement.

A Song About the Incarnation

This semester in Sunday School, my kids have been memorizing John chapter 1. I don’t know if things were planned this way, but the way it has worked out, as we enter the Christmas season, they are memorizing verse 14:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

John just can’t get over the fact that they saw him.

Whenever I hear this verse, I think of the following song. By the way, all the background music is voices.

Thank You, St. Boniface

This post is about how we got our Christmas trees. For the record, I would probably still have a Christmas tree in the house even if it they were pagan in origin. (I’ll explain why in a different post, drawing on G.K. Chesterton.) But Christmas trees aren’t pagan. At least, not entirely.

My Barbarian Ancestors

Yes, I had barbarian ancestors, in Ireland, England, Friesland, and probably among the other Germanic tribes as well. Some of them were headhunters, if you go back far enough. (For example, pre-Roman Celts were.) All of us had barbarian ancestors, right? And we love them.

St. Boniface was a missionary during the 700s to pagan Germanic tribes such as the Hessians. At that time, oak trees were an important part of pagan worship all across Europe. You can trace this among the Greeks, for example, and, on the other side of the continent, among the Druids. These trees were felt to be mystical, were sacred to the more important local gods, whichever those were, and were the site of animal and in some cases human sacrifice.

God versus the false gods

St. Boniface famously cut down a huge oak tree on Mt. Gudenberg, which the Hessians held as sacred to Thor.

Now, I would like to note that marching in and destroying a culture’s most sacred symbol is not commonly accepted as good missionary practice. It is not generally the way to win hearts and minds, you might say.

The more preferred method is the one Paul took in the Areopagus, where he noticed that the Athenians had an altar “to an unknown god,” and began to talk to them about this unknown god as someone he could make known, even quoting their own poets to them (Acts 17:16 – 34). In other words, he understood the culture, knew how to speak to people in their own terms, and in these terms was able to explain the Gospel. In fact, a city clerk was able to testify, “These men have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess” (Acts 19:37). Later (for example, in Ephesus) we see pagan Greeks voluntarily burning their own spellbooks and magic charms when they convert to Christ (Acts 19:17 – 20). This is, in general, a much better way. (Although note that later in the chapter, it causes pushback from those who were losing money in the charm-and-idol trade.)

However, occasionally it is appropriate for a representative of the living God to challenge a local god directly. This is called a power encounter. Elijah, a prophet of ancient Israel, staged a power encounter when he challenged 450 priests of the pagan god Baal to get Baal to bring down fire on an animal sacrifice that had been prepared for him. When no fire came after they had chanted, prayed, and cut themselves all day, Elijah prayed to the God of Israel, who immediately sent fire that burned up not only the sacrifice that had been prepared for Him, but also the stones of the altar (I Kings chapter 18). So, there are times when a power encounter is called for.

A wise missionary who had traveled and talked to Christians all over the world once told me, during a class on the subject, that power encounters tend to be successful in the sense of winning people’s hearts only when they arise naturally. If an outsider comes in and tries to force a power encounter, “It usually just damages relationships.” But people are ready when, say, there had been disagreement in the village or nation about which god to follow, and someone in authority says, “O.K. We are going to settle this once and for all.”

That appears to be the kind of power encounter that Elijah had. Israel was ostensibly supposed to be serving their God, but the king, Ahab, had married a pagan princess and was serving her gods as well. In fact, Ahab had been waffling for years. There had been a drought (which Ahab knew that Elijah — read God — was causing). Everyone was sick of the starvation and the uncertainty. Before calling down the fire, Elijah prays, “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” (I Kings 18:37)

Similar circumstances appear to have been behind Boniface’s decision to cut down the great oak tree. In one of the sources I cite below, Boniface is surrounded by a crowd of bearded, long-haired Hessian chiefs and warriors, who are watching him cut down the oak and waiting for Thor to strike him down. When he is able successfully to cut down the oak, they are shaken. “If our gods are powerless to protect their own holy places, then they are nothing” (Hannula p. 62). Clearly, Boniface had been among them for some time, and the Hessians were already beginning to have doubts and questions, before the oak was felled.

Also note that, just as with Elijah, Boniface was not a colonizer coming in with superior technological power to bulldoze the Hessians’ culture. They could have killed him, just as Ahab could have had Elijah killed. A colonizer coming in with gunboats to destroy a sacred site is not a good look, and it’s not really a power encounter either, because what is being brought to bear in such a case is man’s power and not God’s.

And, Voila! a Christmas Tree

In some versions of this story, Boniface “gives” the Hessians a fir tree to replace the oak he cut down. (In some versions, it miraculously sprouts from the spot.) Instead of celebrating Winter Solstice at the oak tree, they would now celebrate Christ-mass (during Winter Solstice, because everyone needs a holiday around that time) at the fir tree. So, yes, it’s a Christian symbol.

Now, every holiday tradition, laden with symbols and accretions, draws from all kinds of streams. So let me hasten to say that St. Boniface was not the only contributor to the Christmas tree. People have been using trees as objects of decoration, celebration, and well-placed or mis-placed worship, all through history. Some of our Christmas traditions, such as decorating our houses with evergreen and holly boughs, giving gifts, and even pointed red caps, come from the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This is what holidays are like. This is what symbols are like. This is what it is like to be human.

Still, I’d like to say thanks to St. Boniface for getting some of my ancestors started on the tradition of the Christmas tree.

Sources

BBC, “Devon Myths and Legends,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/content/articles/2005/12/05/st_boniface_christmas_tree_feature

Foster, Genevieve, Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, Saturnalia on p. 56 ff.

Hannula, Richard, Trial and Triumph: Stories from church history, Canon Press, 1999. Boniface in chapter 9, pp. 61 – 64.

Puiu, Tibi, “The origin and history of the Christmas tree: from paganism to modern ubiquity,” ZME Science, https://www.zmescience.com/science/history-science/origin-christmas-tree-pagan/

Misanthropic Quote of the Week, from MawMaw

Teenaged J.D. goes to see his beloved grandmother, MawMaw, in the hospital where she has pneumonia. J.D. knows that older people often die of pneumonia.

J.D.: Are you going to die?

MawMaw: I don’t know.

[repeat several times]

J.D.: Just tell me. Are you going to die in here?

MawMaw: I don’t goddamn know.

J.D.: People know. Some people do.

MawMaw: No they don’t.

J.D.: Native Americans.

MawMaw: They’re called Indians, like the Cleveland Indians. And they don’t know, any more than other people. They’re not magic, just ’cause they don’t have microwaves.

from Hillbilly Elegy, on Netflix