10,800-year-old Gardens in Amazonia

10,800 years ago, Early Humans Planted Forest Islands in Amazonia’s Grasslands

Much in this article is speculation, like the idea that there was an 8,000-year gap between people planting gardens and “full-blown agriculture” (whatever that is). Also, as always, the exact dates.

But this does seem to support the general picture that has been building … namely, that people got to the Americas a very long time ago, traversed them very quickly, and started gardening almost immediately … or perhaps already knew about agriculture before they got there, even if they had abandoned it for a generation or two while traveling. Or, as we like to say around here … (drumroll) … ancient people were already very sophisticated in the earliest records we find of them.

The “Wise” Men as Failed Culture Crossers

The Original Text

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or when it rose] and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or when it rose] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,/Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,/because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:1 – 18

This passage is found only in Matthew, not in any of the other Gospels.

Notice, if you didn’t already, that it does not say how many Magi there were; they are just plural. It also doesn’t say that the Magi came to the stable, but references a “house.” Given other clues in the text, this incident could have happened as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. Apparently Joseph and Mary had been forced to stay on in Bethlehem for some time. (This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has ever had to deal with a large bureaucracy.) Apparently the housing situation in Bethlehem had improved enough that they had either found a room to rent, or a relative to stay with.

The following is a re-write of a meditation on the Magi that I once wrote for a church newsletter. The original title was “The Wise Men as Failed Missionaries,” but I think their experience can apply equally well to many kinds of culture crossing, including culture crossing for research, medical work, or the Peace Corps, any time we are attempting to do no harm.

The Perils of Crossing Cultures

I did not see The King and I until after I had already lived in Asia. But I had heard about how great it was, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a fun, lighthearted musical. When I finally saw it for the first time, I was shocked by how darkly and accurately it portrays the meeting of two cultures. The cost, to both Anna and King, is very high indeed, for what seems like a small payoff in mutual understanding.

There is one moment of the kind that we always hope for in cross-cultural exchanges. The King is making Anna show him how to ballroom dance. This romantic activity, so typical of Anna’s culture, is one that she loves, and that could never happen in the culture of Siam. She has been talking about it, and now the king wants to learn. They dance across the stage, with the king concentrating very hard on this new experience. “Again!” he commands. They dance again.

And then, right in the midst of this wonderful moment, everything crashes down. The concubine Tuptim is dragged before the king. She has been caught running away to join her lover. The king has her whipped; Anna tries to intervene; Tuptim is dragged off to her death, and the relationship between Anna and the king is irreparably broken.

Anna brings British values to the king of Siam, and those values literally kill him.

That is how cross-cultural exchanges often go.

The Wise Men, unfortunately, are no exception to this rule. Let’s call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. When people go into another culture, however good their intentions, there is inevitably much they don’t know. So the Wise Men show up quite innocently in Jerusalem and start asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”

They did know a few important facts about Jesus – His office, His age (newborn), and that He ought to be worshipped. What they didn’t know was that Jesus had not been born into the current royal family, or that Judea was a political powder keg. They also had no idea how evil Herod was. It’s amazing – expatriats are constantly amazed – at how the same person can know an awful lot about some things, yet be completely clueless about other, equally important, equally obvious things. This is a pitfall of crossing cultures.

So, in they go – clumsily, conspicuously, perhaps with a large entourage. Foreigners, especially wealthy foreigners, always stand out. They are called before the king. And he is actually able to help them! His scholars point them to Bethlehem. He tells them a pack of lies about wanting to worship Jesus too, and they may sense they are being manipulated, but they are not sure exactly how. Everything is so different from what they expected.

Against all the odds, they do succeed in their mission. They find the newborn king. They worship Him. They deliver their carefully guarded gifts. They even manage not to go back and tell Herod where He is (by the grace of God).

They go back to their own country, thrilled to have met Him … and rightly so. They had gotten to meet the Messiah. It was the experience of a lifetime, and they had sacrificed a lot for it. I realize that I have made these godly men sound a bit foolish in the summary above. Of course they were not fools. I am just trying to highlight that, on a human level, their visit caused a lot more problems than it solved. The Bible hints – and I hope it is true – that they had no idea of the way events were unraveling in their wake.

For the story goes on. Herod does not care that he cannot find the exact child. It does not bother him to murder all the male babies in an entire town. And it does not bother his soldiers to obey him. The holy family, who thought they would just be in Bethlehem a while for the census, now are refugees in another country. And other families in Bethlehem fare much worse. Horror and tragedy! All triggered by the wise men.

If we were the wise men, and if we knew the whole story, we would be dismayed. We would throw up our hands and say, “What a horrible mess we’ve created!” Perhaps we would say, as Anna said, “I wish we had never come.” And then perhaps we would ask, “Have we done any good at all here?”

I think many culture-crossing, would-be do-gooders ask themselves that same question. “Am I doing any good? Does the small amount of good I am able to do, come close to outweighing the harm that I accidentally do? Is the small amount of good that I sometimes, by the grace of God, do, proportionate to the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that I and others have invested in order to get me here?”

I don’t have answers to these questions. In the case of the wise men, it is dangerous to weigh and compare, because soon we will find ourselves weighing and comparing the incarnation of God, and the brutal death of dozens of babies and toddlers. To what can we compare either of those events? They are not currencies that can be converted with some kind of exchange rate. There is no scale for these things. It is wrong to compare. So perhaps it is wrong to ask these questions.

I do know one thing. Despite how it might seem to our human wisdom, the wise men were supposed to be there. Both the slaughter of the innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt were foretold in prophecy. And God sent the star to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. They were supposed to go; they had a role to play. In their case, their role was worship. God did not send them there to change the world or to do some good with their wealth and their wisdom. He sent them to worship. And they did it, and they have gone down in history, and so have the innocent toddlers whom Herod slaughtered. Laments are sung for them, still to this day.

In that fabulous tome about culture crossing, The Poisonwood Bible, missionary kid Leah, who up to that point has been all in on her father’s attempts to transform the local culture, has a low moment when she realizes that her family, by their presence there, is putting a lot of burdens on the community but contributing nothing. “We should not have come here,” she intones. And she presses Anatole, whom she will eventually marry: “Should we have come here? Yes or no.” And Anatole says, “You should not have come here, but now you are here, so you should be here. There are more words in the world than yes and no.” I can’t think of a better way to describe usually disastrous cultural exchanges.

In the Coming Dawn

At the dawn of this new year, I am about to get sentimental on you.

Or am I?

Yesterday, we had a bit of a downer post about the human condition. Today, same topic, but with hope.

The idea of a lost golden age is found in all sorts of cultures, sometimes in some very strange forms. Some cultures and/or religions also add the hope of a future golden age. Of course, you want to watch out for promises of utopia on earth. They usually go wrong quickly and badly. But, the fact that we cannot bring about this future golden age ourselves, does not make the longing for it an illegitimate pursuit. This longing is the universal human recognition that something is wrong with our present world, with our present selves. It expresses the wish for redemption.

So maybe it’s not sentimental to long for a future golden age in which all tears will be dried, even if the song below is a little bit sentimental its instrumentation, coming as it does out of the late 80s/early 90s, when I was a moony teenager. And (*whispers*) I find this song even more moving now than I did as a teen, perhaps because in the intervening years I have seen even more of this broken world.

Here we go.

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.

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

Paganism Isn’t All Bad. GKC Says So

[I]n these pagan cults there is every shade of sincerity — and insincerity. In what sense exactly did an Athenian really think he had to sacrifice to Pallas Athene? In what sense did Dr. Johnson really think that he had to touch all the posts in the street or that he had to collect orange-peel? In what sense does a child really think that he ought to step on every alternate paving-stone? … [These things] have the sincerity of art as a symbol that expresses very real spiritualities under the surface of life. But they are only sincere in the same sense as art; not sincere in the same sense as morality. The child does not think it is wrong to step on the paving-stone as he thinks it is wrong to step on the dog’s tail.

These are the myths: and he who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men. But he who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realize that they are not and never were a religion…. They satisfy some of the needs satisfied by religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality. But though they provide a man with a calendar they do not provide him with a creed. A man did not stand up and say ‘I believe in Jupiter and Juno and Neptune,’ etc., as he stands up and says ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty’ and the rest of the Apostles Creed.

The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshipper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed. Henceforth anything that took away the gesture of worship would stunt and even maim him forever. If man cannot pray he is gagged; if he cannot kneel he is in irons.

When the man makes the gesture of salutation and sacrifice, when he pours out the libation or lifts up the sword, he knows he is doing a worthy and virile thing. He knows he is doing one of the things for which a man was made. His imaginative experiment is therefore justified. But precisely because it began with imagination, there is to the end something of mockery in it, and especially in the object of it.

G.K. Chesteron, The Everlasting Man, excerpts from the argument that runs pages 107 – 112

And More About Our Favorite Cave People

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

So, apparently, I now have you guys trained to send me links about Neanderthals. Which is great. It saves me a lot of time.

Here’s the latest, sent in by a fellow author. (By the way, go buy his book: The Accidental Spy. It’s about a submarine and stuff).

Anyway, this link, “Neanderthals may have used their hands differently from humans,” apart from distinguishing Neanderthals from humans in the title, makes claims that I find impressively modest; you might say, impressively unimpressive. The general idea is that Neanderthals’ thumb bones appear to be a little different from those of modern humans, such that they may have found precision grips a little more difficult. But the article points out that Neanderthals did have a precision grip, and were able to make yarn, thread seashells for jewelry, etc. So, there you go.

As a layperson, it seems to me that these are still guesses based on reconstructing a hand from the bones and using 3-D imaging of how the joints would have worked. Again as a layperson, as far as I can tell, 3-D imaging is just a really sophisticated, computer-aided series of guesses. So it isn’t necessarily accurate. I remember that time that we thought the T-rexes stood upright and put their tails on the ground to support themselves, and then we changed our minds and decided that they ran with their weight leaning forward and the tail stuck out behind for balance.

But, whichever. I have no problem with Neanderthal thumbs being a little bit clumsy, or not a little bit clumsy. I suppose we will find out some day.

“Things Happened with Horrible Timing”

Hello everyone! To my American readers, I hope your holiday weekend was restful. I hope it went fantastic. (Mine did.)

But perhaps your holiday weekend didn’t “go fantastic.” Perhaps it went horrible.

Thanksgiving has betrayed me just enough times that I get nervous around it. I can think of three or four past Thanksgivings where there emerged, on that very weekend, a crisis of life-and-death proportions. I’m not sure why, but holidays and other non-ordinary times seem to attract these things.

In my upcoming book, The Strange Land, the tribal chief notes ruefully that moving days are subject to the same phenomenon:

Enmer had seen this time and again. If anyone was going to get sick, if anyone was going to get pregnant, if anyone was going to miscarry or commit a petty crime or simply snap under the pressure of survival, they were more likely to do it at the exact moment of transition. These in-between times [when the tribe was getting ready to move] were dangerous.

Enmer had given this a lot of thought and had concluded that though he could — and did — blame his people for their actual actions, he could not blame them for their bad timing. Things happened with horrible timing. That was the way of the world.

The Strange Land, chapter 10

I hope this Thanksgiving was kind to each of you, though. See you next time!