Yesterday was Pentecost. It commemorates the following event, which happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection:
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment. Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”
Acts 2:2 – 4, 6 – 8, NIV
I don’t think the point of this story is that every Christian, down to today, ought to be able to “speak in tongues.” The point is that God does.
Although He first revealed Himself to a very specific people group in a very specific cultural context, God has given humanity His word in linguistic form and it’s capable of being translated into any language and culture. Those who have participated in this process will tell you that it’s delightful to see what each unique culture does with it.
Actually, the fact that translation is possible at all is sort of a miracle in itself.
Occasionally you’ll see an essay by an amateur philosopher of language which will try to argue — usually with a fairly abstract argument — that translation is not possible. Sometimes these arguments are logically perfect and very persuasive. And yet. Translation happens every day. It’s sort of like the (apocryphal?) argument that according to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee should not be able to fly.
Other times, someone will try to tell you that a particular word or concept from another culture is “untranslatable.” They will then proceed to explain to you what this word or concept means. In other words, to translate it. In these cases, what they mean by “untranslatable” is that you cannot translate it into, say, English with a one-word gloss. It requires a paragraph, or sometimes a story or a history lesson to give a full sense of the word. But it is still possible to convey, in another language, what the concept is, and once it has been explained, non-native speakers will understand what is meant even if you just continue to use the original, “untranslatable” word. Their argument that the concept cannot be translated ends up being a demonstration that it actually can.
The image at the top of this post is a scan of the front and back of a bookmark … which contains a tiny print … of a huge painting by artist Hyatt Moore. It shows a version of the Last Supper with the twelve disciples represented by a man from each of twelve different minority language communities. (Or, in some cases, countries. For example, Papua New Guinea is represented by just one man, but it has hundreds of different languages.)
God is the ultimate polyglot, and this painting shows a bit of His heart.
My earliest and most enduring culture crush has been on Native American culture. This started very early, perhaps by the time I was five. By the time I could read on my own, I was on a sharp lookout for any book with an Indian on the cover. That was all it took to make me pick up the book and devour it.
Here are some of the books I’ve discovered … as a kid, and
then later, as an adult.
This is an incomplete list on two counts. First of all, there are obviously many fine books out there, by Native and non-Native people alike, that I have yet to discover and read. Secondly, this isn’t even a complete list of all the books I’ve read on this topic. I can think of at least sixseveneight twelve other books that I remember vividly, but can’t remember enough about the titles to track them down.
As A Kid
North American Indians, by Marie and Douglas Gorsline, Random House, 1977. This book was the introduction to Native American tribes and their lifestyles for my siblings and me. It’s a good overview of the different cultural regions of North America, including a map at the beginning of the book. For each region, it names one or two of the best-known tribes and gives a few pages of details about their lifestyle, beautifully illustrated. The last page of the book is about sign language, which it says functioned as a lingua franca for the different Plains tribes. It includes a number of illustrations of the different signs. What could be more fun?
Runner for the King by Rowena Bastin Bennett, 1962. I must have been seven years old when I read this book. I have no doubt that I picked it up because it featured my two favorite things: Indians, and the word “king.” It takes place in the ancient Incan kingdom, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that it did not disappoint. The boy on the front cover runs through rugged mountain landscapes. He encounters a fellow runner who has been beaten and tied up by enemies, so the boy must run the next messenger’s leg of the journey as well as his own. He has to climb over a rock slide. At last, he makes it to the king with his message and is personally honored by the king. I now realize, looking at the drawing, that the boy’s face on this cover does not look particularly Incan. It looks more like Peter Pan colored reddish brown. But at the time, this boy – particularly this picture on the cover – instantly became my standard for fitness and beauty. You’d laugh about that if you knew me, because I look less like this lean, fit, dark-haired runner, and more like … well, Shirley Temple.
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scholastic, Inc., 1935, 1953, 1963. This is the Little House book in which the Ingalls family go into “Indian country,” homestead there for less than a year, and then are moved out by changing government policy, not too long after the same government has forced the Indians to leave. This book has been called racist, but that is a foul slander. It portrays a lot of complexity in the Ingalls family’s experience with the Indians. Charles Ingalls, Laura’s “Pa,” in particular clearly respects the Indians. He gently rebukes some other settlers when they speak of the Indians in a dehumanizing way, and he talks with enthusiasm about a buffalo hunt: “Now that’s something I’d like to see!” There is also a scene where Pa has been hunting a wildcat that he knows is hanging around the creek. He needs to find and kill it so that it doesn’t attack his family. He meets an Indian man, who gives him to understand with signs that three days ago he found the very cat and shot it out of a tree.
Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla, illustrated by Peter Buchard, Scholastic. Squanto’s story is truly an incredible one. The scene I remember best from this book is that of Squanto trying to sleep on his first night in a British room. The bed is too soft and uncomfortable. Finally he sleeps on the floor.
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. An Indian boy and his father befriend a white boy who has been left on his own to manage the family’s new cabin until the rest of his family can join him. The Indian boy teaches the white boy wood lore and such things as the signs that the different clans leave on trees. The white boy teaches the Indian boy to read. The Indian boy is really offended by the role of Friday in Robinson Crusoe, which rocks his new friend’s world.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. I don’t remember this one very well, but I know that I read it as a kid. It’s the story of an incredibly tough and resourceful girl surviving on her own on an island. Catnip to Kid Me.
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators, which just makes this book all the better. This book is not primarily about Indians, but they do play an increasingly big role as the book progresses. Caddie befriends them and then ends up sneaking across the river to visit them and head off a conflict.
Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks. Omri owns a small metal medicine cupboard that can bring his plastic toys to life. When it does, he discovers that they are not toys but have actual lives and personalities of their own. This series is one of the most poignant I’ve ever read.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1973. This one barely makes it into the “childhood” category. I read it in seventh grade, in a year when we read many books set in other cultures (such as The Good Earth and Things Fall Apart). And I Heard the Owl definitely belongs in that august company. It rises to the level of literature. Owl tells the story of Mark, a young priest who goes to serve a small Indian community in remote British Columbia. My favorite scene is the one in which he suddenly realizes that some of the women are talking about him, in front of him, and protests that they’ve got their facts wrong. He has acquired a passive knowledge of the language without really trying. He must have quite a gift for languages indeed, because those coastal Native languages are really complex.
As An Adult
The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee both work for the Navajo Tribal Police. Joe is a tough old cynic. Jim is a young visionary. “Tony Hillerman was the former president of Mystery Writers of America and received its Edgar and Grand Master awards. His other honors include the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. He lived with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico.” — From the jacket of A Thief of Time, Harper, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2009.
The Grieving Indian by Arthur H. and George McPeek, 1988. Arthur H. is a Native pastor, recovering alcoholic, and boarding school survivor. He has many excellent insights about unresolved grief, which he believes is the root cause of most of the problems facing Native individuals, families, and communities.
Bruchko by Bruce Olson, Charisma House, 1978, 2006. Bruce Olson goes to live among the Motilone Indians of Colombia. After much fruitless struggle to integrate, he is befriended by a remarkable young man his own age who tells Bruce his “heart name.” In time, Christ comes to the Motlione in a way that is very organic to their culture. This book is filled with goosebump-raising moments.
Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010. Black Elk grew up in the Lakota tribe. At the age of nine, he was given a troubling vision that essentially invited his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness. He did not share this vision with anyone for several years. He was present at the battle of Little Bighorn, and later traveled to England as a dancer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Besides the illustrations done by the author, the book includes a historical drawing done by Red Horse and many authentic black and white photographs.
Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger, 2014. Girls are disappearing from the Ojibwe reservation. Cork O’Connor goes off to find one of them, and ends up in North Dakota.
Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. A team of archaeologists discovers a lost Anasazi city and figures out what wiped the Anasazi out. There are no modern-day Indians among the main characters in this book, but near the end, one does play a key role.
Children’s Books Discovered As An Adult
Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker, pictures by Arnold Lobel, an I Can Read Book by Harper & Row Publishers, New York & Evanston, 1962. Little Runner is an extremely relatable Iroquois boy whose main goal in life is to get some maple sugar.
Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James & Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman, 2012. This legend explains why rabbit, who started out with a long, beautiful tail, now has a short, fuzzy one. It also explains why cottonwood trees are full of “cotton.” Like many Native legends, it contains a not-so-subtle warning about being proud, wanting our own way, and not listening to warnings from our elders. “I will make it snow! A-zi-ka-na-po!”
A Salmon for Simon by Better Waterton, illustrated by Ann Blades, copyright 1978, first Meadow Mouse edition 1990, first revised Meadow Mouse edition 1996, reprinted 1998. A Meadow Mouse Paperback, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, Ontario. Simon, who lives in a village on the Pacific coast of Canada, has been trying all day to catch a salmon. When he sees one drop from an eagle’s talons, he has to decide whether to eat it or save it.
Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31
Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.
On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East. It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.
Description Is Not Prescription
First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding
that nevertheless seems to be widespread.
Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history. The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors. In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape. In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism. And so on. It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.
God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy
But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff. It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force. Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad. If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.
I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What
kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves
in at the time that God gave them all these laws?
Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence. Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them. They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices. They had no war, no rape, no slavery. They did not even eat meat. They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.
No, no, no. Come on. That picture is the exact opposite of the truth. There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.
The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East
When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the
historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:
In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.
If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or
were a farmer attached to, a city-state. At the center of your city would be the temple
of that city’s god. Typically the king
was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her
representative on earth. So, the god was
ruling you through the king. Every
citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service
and sacrifice. And how was that religion
practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures
in which livestock represent wealth. But
actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.
prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of
fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of
and in some places it was common.
In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy. All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites. The power of the ruling class was considered absolute. Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king. There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law. Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.
For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.
It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World
Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East. The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical. The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture. In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.
But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are
accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and
secular, with lots of social mobility (and no
animal sacrifices whatsoever). For many
people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized
theocracy comes when they open the Bible.
They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had
commanded all of this. But no, He was
not instituting theocracy, animal
sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it. Those things were already universal. He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the
norm. He spoke to them in their terms,
but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His
Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?
You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?” This would, of course, have made no sense to them. They would have been completely unable to understand the message. If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies. You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it. But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.
Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in
a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where
instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not
allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated
animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by
the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again,
limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their
own land … where, for many years, there
was no king.
If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the
Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)
Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.
Here is a cool recent article about Neanderthals. Turns out they were more widespread than we used to think. This article does refer to them as humans. But it also distinguishes them from “modern humans.” And some articles refer to them as different “species.”
But they have tools at their sites, and the reconstructions of their faces look like people we might meet anywhere. (I know that’s an old joke, but it’s also a truism.)
And now, accompanied by a creepy speculative picture, we are told Neanderthals and modern humans were “lovers, not fighters.”
Alert readers may notice that in my second novel, The Strange Land, my main character’s love interest is also his cousin.
In my defense, I painted myself
into a corner by writing about a small group of people who flee from a disaster
in ancient history. They are
founders. Some of them are going to have
to marry their cousins. By hypothesis,
their genetic code is richer and less deteriorated than is ours today. So cousin marriage is not going to have the
same bad effects that we see today from years of inbreeding.
Nowadays we have gotten rid of
almost all of our sexual taboos. But one
we have kept is: don’t marry your cousin!
In the group I am writing about, it is almost the opposite. They have a lot of common-sense taboos, but
cousin-marriage is not one of them.
Even they can’t marry just any cousin.
Let’s do some anthropology.
One thing anthropologists do when they are studying a culture is make a kinship chart. This is like a family tree with, by convention, triangles representing males and circles representing females. We make this kinship chart, we identify the Ego (the person whose relatives we are naming), and then we can discover and fill in words for all these relationships. When I did this in Borneo, I discovered that the language I was studying had, for example, a unique word for the woman who is married to my husband’s brother. (Duoi.) Fun stuff.
As you might expect, different cultures have different ways to slice up the kinship universe and these ways tend to cluster with other cultural traits. The chart I am about to show you is called the Iroquois kinship system, but it is also found in many other cultures around the world. It tends to be found in cultures that have a patrilineal inheritance system. My source for this is found here. (I also found the chart there, but I re-copied it by hand to simplify it a bit and to avoid image copyright issues. If my handwriting makes your eyes bleed, I encourage you to follow the link and take a look at the original chart.)
As you can see, “Uncle” or “Aunt” means someone who is married to a relative of your parents’ generation, such as the man married to your mother’s sister. There are unique words for “Father’s Sister” and “Mother’s Brother.” And – this is key – a parent’s sibling of the same sex is also considered your parent.
So, in the Iroquois kinship system you would call your mother’s sister “Mother.” Her kids would be considered your brothers and sisters. They are parallel cousins. You do not get to marry them. (You see, we still have marriage taboos, just not the same ones!)
On the other hand, the children of your mother’s brother are not called brothers and sisters. They are called cousins. They are your cross cousins. You are encouraged to marry them. The same is true for the children of your father’s sister.
This may seem strange to us, whose extended families are small and who have a wide world of non-relatives from which to select a spouse. But you can see that it would become important to anyone living in a small, isolated community.
Luckily for my character Ikash, the cousin on whom he gets a crush is the daughter of his father’s … sister. She is not just his cousin, she is his cross cousin. She is fair game, at least as far as the kinship system is concerned. Of course, he still has to overcome her father’s grave doubts about him, but that’s another story …
I love to see an ancient source vindicated. This article concerns a detailed description by Herodotus of a certain style of boat building that was doubted because archaeologists never found any examples of it … until now.
I realize we can’t just rubber-stamp every ancient account we like while discounting the ones we don’t like. We have to have some kind of standard of proof. Still, historical proof is not like scientific proof. There’s a slippery slope between “We have found no proof that this [whatever it is] existed” and “We have found proof that this didn’t exist.” Some people fall down it.