Stone Age Surgery

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Trigger warning: Stone Age surgery!

This post is the first in a series I have planned about prehistory. Each post will draw on one or more chapters from the book The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley, Touchstone, 2000. From the front flap:

Our long-held myths are exploding. Recent discoveries of astonishing accomplishments from the Neolithic Age – in art, technology, writing, math, science, religion, and medicine, and exploration – demand a fundamental rethinking of human history before the dawn of civilization.

Lost Civilizations, inside flap

So, Rudgley’s thesis is basically that there was, in fact, civilization long before there was civilization. That is, of course, also a theme of this blog. “Ancient people were smarter than we think,” or that art, literature, science and civilization are the natural state of human beings and have been present (ebbing and flowing of course) as long as there has been humanity.

A near-universal theme in the mythologies of the world is that the present state of the world, and more specifically the social world, is in decline — a fall from the Garden of Eden or from a Golden Age. Modern civilization has turned these traditional mythological assumptions on their head and written a new script, one based on the idea of social progress and evolution. In this new mythology the notion of civilization (as it is generally understood) replaces Eden and this novel paradise exists not at the beginning of time but, if not right now, then just around the corner. Civilization is … presented as the final flowering of human achievement born out of a long and interminable struggle against the powers of darkness and ignorance that are represented by the Stone Age.

Lost Civilizations, Introduction, page 1

I have come to believe in the ancientness of civilization because I take ancient documents seriously as historical records: Genesis, primarily, but also the other legends and myths from around the world which Rudgley mentions in his intro. This suspicion that ancient people were much smarter than we give them credit for was further strengthened as I learned about some of their building projects. Now Rudgley is presenting archaeological evidence that they knew far more than we suspect about art, mathematics, the natural sciences, and medicine.

Disclaimer about Dates

By the way, I don’t have a coherent way to sort out which archaeological dates to accept and which ones to doubt. As far as I can tell from my reading, all methods of dating archaeological sites are based on some form of dead reckoning.

Carbon dating depends on certain assumptions about rates of molecular decay, which can’t be proven in the first place and can also be thrown off universally or locally by events such as a comet strike. Carbon dating also seems to be less reliable the farther we go back in time.

Dating by archaeological layers also depends on assumptions about different historical periods and what might be diagnostic of each, except in cases where a site can be reliably linked to a known historical event (which is obviously only the case for relatively recent sites). Other than that, it’s all dead reckoning.

Dating events in human history by the use of genetics depends upon assuming that all genetic differences evolved and assuming certain rates of change. Historical linguistics has the same problem.

Finally, historical records such as the genealogies found in Genesis and in the oral traditions of other peoples worldwide hit only the highlights of a family line and don’t give us any idea how many generations were skipped.

Each of these methods can be pretty convincing in specific cases. It is even more convincing when one or more methods converge, yielding the same date range. But even when that happens, it’s still just one method of dead reckoning appearing to validate another. And most often, different dating methods contradict each other. If a plurality of them converged on one timeline for human history, maybe we could accept that. But they don’t. It’s complete chaos.

I would love to present a clever, coherent, data-grounded rubric for sorting all this stuff out. But I’m not a professional in any of these fields. Even if I were, the pros don’t all agree with one another. It’s starting to look like, in order to have a sorting method that makes sense, I would have to do full-time research for several years. Maybe for a lifetime. So I got nothin’.

My working theory is that humanity, and hence human civilization, is tens of thousands but not hundreds of thousands and certainly not millions of years old. I can’t prove this. No one can.

So, in these posts about Rudgley’s book, I’ll just present the dates as he gives them. I won’t try to integrate them with the picture of ancient human history that I have been piecing together in my books and in other posts on this site, all of which could be invalidated at any time by a new historical or archaeological discovery. Sometimes Rudgley gives dates that are hundreds of thousands or even millions of years old (though not in this chapter). I might be skeptical that they are really that old, but can still accept that these people were living long before mainstream archaeology tells us that there was “civilization.”

On to the Icky Stuff!

So. Stone Age Surgery.

Undoubtedly the widest-known major surgical operation in tribal cultures is trepanation … which, as will become clear, was also known in the Stone Age. This operation involves the removing of one or more parts of the skull without damaging the blood vessels, the three membranes that envelop the brain … or the actual brain.

Lost Civilizations, p 126

That’s right, removing parts of the skull. There are three methods by which this can be done: scraping, “a mixture of boring and sawing,” and “the push-plough method,” which involves creating an oval groove in the skull (basically another method of scraping).

Thomas Wilson Parry, MD (1866 – 1945), became fascinated by trepanation and practiced various methods of it on human skulls (not on live patients), “using implements made of obsidian, flint, slate, glass, shell and shark teeth.” “Parry records that the average time it took him to perform a trepanation by the scraping method on a fresh adult skull was half an hour. He found both flint and obsidian excellent materials to work with surgically, and also expressed the opinion that shells — which were used in Oceania to perform such operations — were highly effective too.” (page 128)

Trepanation appears to be less painful than it sounds. It has been used at various times and places to treat epilepsy, mental illness, head injuries, severe headaches, vertigo and deafness (129). It is “still regularly practised among the Gusii of Kenya, a Bantu people with a population of about one million, and theirs is perhaps the last surviving traditional practice of its kind.” (130) Trepanation was also practiced by the Incas and the pre-Inca peoples; in Neolithic Europe; in 6th-century BC Palestine; and now, trepanned skulls a few thousand years old have also been found in Australia.

Rudgley points out that “as it is usually only the bones of Stone Age people that survive to be discovered … any operation that was performed on the soft parts of the body cannot be detected.” (136) If Neolithic people were willing and able occasionally to practice trepanation, it seems likely that they were able to perform less risky kinds of surgery too. There is some evidence from Neolithic Europe of various kinds of dentistry, including toothpick grooves, birch bark chewing gum, and even a skull with a tooth that has been drilled. (136)

Rudgley’s chapter on trepanation (“Stone Age Surgery”) comes after a chapter called “Under the Knife” (pp 116 – 125), which discusses medical procedures in “tribal” cultures that are known from history and ethnography. This includes everything from circumcision in the Ancient Near East, to amputation among the Australian aborigines, to very detailed anatomical knowledge among the Aleutian islanders. The chapter concludes with two horrifying yet impressive accounts of successful surgeries in a tribal context. There is a c-section performed in Uganda in 1879, and various tumor removals performed in the Ellice [sic] Islands in the 1920s. The message is clear: modern, “civilized” people don’t have a corner on medical knowledge.

Antiseptics and Painkillers

We don’t know whether Stone Age people had germ theory. Nor, if they had it, do we know how they referred to germs. In one of Ursula le Guin’s novels, a wound getting infected is called “the evil of the blade.” That’s hardly less scientific than calling it an “infection,” as long as you know how to prevent or treat it.

Studies of both the trepanned skulls of the Incas and some of those found in Neolithic Europe indicate that healing seems to have been the norm in both cases. It is hard to explain the Stone Age success rate without concluding that some kind of effective antiseptic agent must have been used. Furthermore, the surgeons of the time must have understood the need for it.

Lost Civilizations, p 131

If germ theory was ever explicitly known, it was obviously forgotten at some point in human history, only to be re-discovered much later. But even if people were operating on a different theory, it would be possible for them to know the importance of cleanliness and to know how to treat a patient using any of a large number of natural substances that have antiseptic properties. The words “Stone Age” naturally evoke the image of a cave man, and the idea of a cave man naturally includes an individual who never takes a bath. But it ain’t necessarily so.

It is also possible that people’s immune systems were much stronger many years ago, if we are willing to entertain the idea that the human race has declined over time rather than evolving upwards.

Now, I am sure you want to know about painkillers. Here, gleaned from Rudgley’s Stone Age Surgery chapter, is a short list of substances that have been used as painkillers at different times and places:

  • cocaine (in coca leaves — South America)
  • wine mixed with extract of mandrake (first-century Greece)
  • mandrake beer (ancient Egypt)
  • possibly just beer
  • the opium poppy (starting in the Mediterranean around 6000 BC and spreading west from there)
  • cannabis (native to Central Asia, but quickly spread to Old Europe and China)
  • betel nut (Southeast Asia)
  • tobacco (in the Americas)
  • pituri (a nicotine-bearing plant used by the Australian Aborigines)

Clearly, although we might prefer modern anesthesia, ancient peoples were not completely without recourse when it came to pain. Most of the substances on this list are attested not only in history but also in ancient burials.

And Now, the Lucky Honoree of this Post

This post is dedicated to a certain relative of mine whose birthday today is. Like the surgeons in this post, he is both very smart, and now, as of this birthday … ancient.

Happy Saturnalia

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And now to Rome, as always in December, came the Saturnalia.

Io! Saturnalia!” That was the call that ushered in the merriest holiday of the Roman year — that hilarious, glorious, mid-December festival, the Saturnalia.

Io! Saturnalia! Io! Io! Io!” That was the greeting that echoed through the holiday season. For it was in honor of Saturn — good, old, generous Saturn, kindest and most provident of the gods.

During those mid-December days (first three, later seven) no war was ever declared, nor battles fought, no criminals tried or punished. Courts were closed; schools dismissed; even the slave markets were shut down. During those days, all slaves were free [just] as in those golden days of old, all people had been equal. Everyone, rich, poor, young and old joined in a glorious holiday.

The day began with a sacrifice of thanksgiving in the early morning, followed by a public feast at midday, which turned into a wild, hilarious carnival before evening. In red pointed caps and colored costumes, merrymakers went singing and laughing through the streets, showering wheat and barley like confetti, and granting every wish, no matter how wild, ridiculous, or disgusting, made by the lucky one who had been chosen “King of the Saturnalia.”

The weeks ahead were always filled with preparation. Candlemakers and makers of dolls were busy pouring wax, turning out little earthenware images, and setting up booths for the doll fair. Every child would want a doll, and every household would need many candles for the Saturnalia.

Holly branches, with their bright berries, had to be cut and carted into the city, and houses trimmed with evergreen. Gifts for the family and friends must be selected and wrapped. For on the second day, after a family dinner of roast young pig, with all the trimmings, came an exchange of presents!

Augustus Caesar’s World: 44 BC to AD 14 by Genevieve Foster, Beautiful Feet Books, 1947, 1975, pp. 56 – 58

OK, American Southwest, You Win

I was always sort of attracted to you. My husband and I camped our way through you right after we got married, and it was interesting, but I didn’t commit myself because I didn’t think I’d be back. I thought the two of us were going to move to Indonesia. And indeed we did, and we learned its languages (a few of them) and explored its tropical, Southeast Asian landscapes and cultures, a world away from your deserts. But we didn’t, as I had expected, end up raising our kids there. Ultimately we ended up coming back to North America. American Southwest, I was getting pulled into your orbit.

Betataki cliff dwelling at the Navajo National Monument

Things only got worse when I discovered Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and then the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels of Tony Hillerman. (The first Hillerman novel I read was so sad, I swore I’d never read him again. But eventually, inevitably, I picked up another one, and then it was all over for me.)

Bought at the Navajo Cultural Center gift shop in Tuba City, AZ. They had many of Hillerman’s novels and I’d have bought them all if I could.

Yes, I know there is plenty of terrific nonfiction about you. But I always tend to reach for fiction.

Petroglyphs on Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Park, Southern Utah

And then, the final blow: We moved to the Intermountain West. Within driving distance of … you. And this last week, I got the opportunity to explore you with my children by my side. I got to drive through Navajo country, Dinetah, the land of my book friends Chee and Leaphorn, seeing the places and hearing the language that I had read about in their adventures. I can’t describe how this felt. It was like getting to visit Middle Earth or something.

Dinosaur prints near Tuba City, AZ

So, after this trip, you win, American Southwest. You have conquered me. I am hooked. It is not possible to learn everything about you … not even in one lifetime, and I am getting started late. But whenever possible, I will be back. I promise you that.

Kachina Bridge

I know I’m not the first outsider to fall for you. In fact, that’s another thing that I sort of like about the tourist and transplant culture surrounding you: you seem to attract people who are into art. I look forward to doing some paintings of you that are exactly like the bajillions of other paintings done by your other adoring fans.

Paintings of landscapes like this one.

And I promise, I won’t steal or “acquire” any priceless artifacts. I don’t want your relics or your pots, American Southwest. They wouldn’t look good in my house. They look best exactly where they belong: right in the middle of you.

The other side of Kachina Bridge. Can you spot the petroglyphs?

Book with the “Best Diverse Cast” (Calendar Girls Tag)

Whenever I see “Calendar Girls” I think of the hilarious British movie by that name, but in this case, it means a group of (girl?) book bloggers who treat a different bookish theme during each month of the calendar.  (So we will not be posing. I am sure you are relieved.) And this month, December, I was actually able to think of a book that fulfills the theme! 

Calendar Girls is hosted by NeverNotReading, who says of this month’s theme, “What I really like about this theme is it allows you to interpret diversity in whatever way is meaningful to you. Racial or ethnic representation, LGBTQ diversity, neurodiversity, whatever you’re passionate about, we want to read it too!”

Picking a book with a diverse cast felt somewhat arbitrary because so many of my faves have casts that are diverse in one way or another. Pearl Buck’s Pavilion of Women springs to mind, as do Ursula le Guin’s novellas set on the planet of Yeowe (navy-blue colored upper class, grey-blue colored underclass, red-brown foreigners with a very different culture coming from distant Hain).  Even the very Nordic Lord of the Rings has a main cast of four different species and minor characters that are even more diverse (Ents, anyone?).  And then there’s Clan of the Cave Bear, which features Neanderthals as main characters.

But here is the book I have settled on: Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman.

 Clowns is part of Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. It’s a mystery/police procedural series set in Dinetah, the Navajo homeland, which straddles the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.  Chee and Leaphorn both work for the Navajo Tribal police. Because of the way jurisdiction on Indian reservations is handled, they frequently have to work on their cases with Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or Utah State police and/or with the FBI.

Books in this series usually take place on the Navajo reservations and the plot often turns on Navajo culture. That’s already “diverse” to an outsider like me. But it quickly gets deeper.  Chee and Leaphorn have each had a different experience of being Navajo. Leaphorn was of the generation that was sent away to boarding schools right around the time their adult vocabulary would have been developing. Consequently, his grasp on the Navajo language is a little shaky, and he thinks like a modern, secular white man. He doesn’t, in his bones, believe in Navajo cosmology. Chee, a younger man, was raised at home and enculturated, as per tradition, by his mother’s brother. He is a fully spiritual Navajo and wants to become a haatalii, or traditional healer, like his uncle (though Leaphorn, and others, feel the demands of being a hataalii would not mix well with a policeman’s schedule).

Sacred Clowns is even more diverse than the average Leaphorn and Chee book because in this case, the mystery takes place in Hopi culture, which is different from Navajo culture.  (For example, Navajos tend to invite everyone to their religious ceremonies, whereas Hopi ceremonies are held in secret and never talked about.)  In the opening scene, Chee is attending a Hopi cultural event that features clowns, which are supposed to show people their own folly. At one point, a Hopi clown mimes selling cultural artifacts to an outsider for a lot of money. He is clearly criticizing this practice, but Chee senses “there’s something I’m missing.”  When the clown first drags his little wagon of artifacts out into the middle of the square, the Hopi crowd falls silent. Chee wants to find out why, and this will get him digging into local politics and ultimately solving the case.

Chee isn’t at the top of his game during the event, however, because he is also there sort of on a date with Janet Pete. Janet’s father was Navajo, but she was raised on the East Coast by her Scottish-American mother. Chee really likes Janet, and he spends most of the book trying to find out whether it would be OK for him to get involved with her. The Navajo have an elaborate system of incest laws which prohibit you from marrying anyone whose clans have a historical connection to your own clans. Janet doesn’t know her father’s clans, and anyway the maternal clans are considered more important.

Meanwhile, Leaphorn, a widower, is planning a trip to China with his lady friend, who is a white anthropologist (Lousia Bourbonette – a French name: more diversity, and a romance between older people!).  He wants to visit Mongolia, because he’s read that his ancestors probably originated there.

And cramming in as many cultures as possible, there is another tribal cop, Harold Blizzard, who is Cheyenne.  About halfway through the book there’s a great scene where Chee and Janet Pete are at a drive-in movie, and Blizzard is there, sort of as a third wheel. The movie is an old Western called Cheyenne Autumn, which is a cult classic among the Navajo because the “Cheyenne” characters in the movie were actually played by Navajos. When they are supposedly speaking Cheyenne in the movie, they are actually speaking Navajo, and of course saying crude and saracastic things that were not in the script.  Chee, as the only person in the car who speaks Navajo, has to translate for Janet and Harold so they can understand why certain supposedly solemn lines are funny and why all the other (Navajo) moviegoers are laughing and honking their car horns. It’s this experience that gets Chee thinking about how much outsiders to a culture miss, and wondering what he was missing at the Hopi gathering.

Finally, when Chee consults some elders about Janet’s father’s clans, he gets an earful from them about how young people aren’t traditional enough. They are referring to the way that hataalii of Chee’s generation will sometimes break up the weeklong Navajo healing ceremonies over a couple of weekends so that people who work 9-to-5 jobs can attend them. According to the elders, this is not acceptable, but Chee will probably have to do it if he becomes a healer. He must struggle with how much he can adapt his ancestors’ culture and still remain Navajo.

All of Hillerman’s books do a great job exploring themes of culture and identity, but in this book he really outdoes himself.

Dutch Curly Hair

I am Dutch-American. What I got out of it was good bone structure, “Kraklen” cookies (so good!), a fondness for black licorice, a few mild swear words such as swatakat (translation: “black cat”), curly hair (more on that later), and the phrase, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.”

That last one is tongue-in-cheek, of course. After all, we are Dutch American. But if you look at history, it does neatly encapsulate the national attitude.

One Cheer for the Dutch

The Dutch had their national moment, as it were, during the seventeenth century (1600s). They provided a refuge of religious freedom for the Pilgrims, mostly because at that time the Dutch didn’t care about separatism nearly as much as King James did.

In North America, they set up a trading post at New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island), but made the mistake of fixing upon a feudal-style system where only Dutch West India Company members could own land, and their serfs were forbidden by law from leaving. This did not encourage growth, and the place struggled until the English conquered it, re-named it New York, and allowed English things like local control of government, free immigration and trade, and land ownership for everyone. After that it really took off, and … well, you see it today.

Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company was distinguishing itself in Indonesia, where in order to ensure its own access to spices, it would eventually become a harsh colonial power and rule for centuries, until its grip was weakened by Japan (on-site) and Hitler (back home).

While in Indonesia, the Dutch did manage to get a monkey named after them. The Indonesians called the proboscis monkey kera Belanda, i.e. “Dutch monkey,” because of its big nose and reddish skin.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Good bone structure!

I don’t think the Dutch sent their nicest people to Indonesia. Or to Manhattan. But, during this same period, Holland did have some amazing citizens. For example, they had Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Photo by Aaron Burden on Pexels.com

“Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leyden, Holland [the same city where the Pilgrims took refuge] in 1606. He was one of nine children and the son of a miller [and so they probably had a windmill!]. His family was Calvinist by faith … Rembrandt married Saskia, a Dutch woman whom he dearly loved. For a short period they enjoyed a life of happiness and prosperity and many were acclaiming him to be the greatest artist of the century. But Rembrandt never displayed an exalted opinion of himself… During the early years of success, he obtained a studio in the ghetto where he spent much of his time painting the impoverished people of Amsterdam. The ghetto was where he found his characters for biblical paintings, such as Abraham, Isaac, and many of the old prophets. Meanwhile, Saskia enjoyed the luxury that came with her husband’s success. Unfortunately, all this was short lived.

“They would have two daughters who died during infancy. Then, there was good news as they gave birth to a healthy son whom they named Titus. Shortly thereafter, Saskia fell ill and died. Rembrandt was greatly grieved by these family losses, and never remarried. It wasn’t long after these tragedies that he had to declare bankruptcy, losing everything he owned, including his great art collection. All that was spared him were his paints and brushes. Then, one year before his own death, the only remaining member of his family, Titus, died at the age of 27.

“Truly Rembrandt was a man of sorrows. But none of his emotions or energy went for naught, as he continued to paint with all the fervor of his youth. During his deep moments of suffering, he would always revert back to doing paintings of Jesus Christ. These biblical stories were done more for his own satisfaction [than for sale], as there were over seventy biblical paintings in his possession just a few years before his death.” (God & the History of Art, pp. 65 – 68)

Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits

Rembrandt did approximately 100 self-portraits, which brings me to what this Dutch-American blogger has in common with him besides the national origin and, of course, the crazy talent. If you want to see a few of them (and they are delightful), follow this link to the Human Pages site.

Of course there are so many things to love about these portraits, especially the Impressionist-looking one where an aged Rembrandt is smiling at the camera. (That must have been fun to paint.) But one thing that struck me about them was the curly hair. Look at that curly hair! In the very young self-portrait, it shades his face in a hood of frizz. Perhaps he had just washed it.

I have hair of about the same texture. When treated well (i.e. not washed for while), it settles into loose curls. When treated poorly, it frizzes. I got this curly hair from my Dutch American grandfather. Never got to see it on his head, because he went bald before I was born, so I didn’t know what was coming. But the hair lives on in me and in several other members of my family. It wasn’t until I saw these self-portraits of Rembrandt that I realized these are genuine, trademark Dutch curls.

Every nationality has things to be ashamed of and things to be proud of. I am proud of Rembrandt (though I can’t take any credit for him), and I am happy to share, if nothing else, his hair.

Sources

DeMar, Gary, et. al. Building a City on a Hill. American Vision, Inc., 1997, rev. ed. 2005. Chapter 25: “New Netherland Becomes New York,” p. 289 ff.

Stebbing, Barry. God & the History of Art I, 2nd ed. How Great Thou ART publications, 2001.

This Is My Cheater Halloween Post

I have never been freaked out by paganism.

G.K. Chesterton has addressed the important question of what paganism really is and how it relates to being human in his book The Everlasting Man. So I was going to do a brand-new post about paganism drawing on that book. I was going to discuss how not everything in pagan practice is what we would strictly call religion, because it includes local history, genealogy, cosmology, entertainment, medicine, etc., etc. I was going to mention that all human beings need rituals, ways of dealing with illness, ways to mark the seasons, times of mourning and times of play, that literally every human practice was developed first by pagans and blah blah blah.

But I wasn’t able to get access to G.K. Chesterton’s book so as to write a brand-new post on all of this. Besides, conveniently, I have already written one.

I’ve posted a link to this article before, but I know you guys. I know you don’t usually click on links. So here it is again: Pagan Origins: Should Christians Worry?

Cultural Appropriation Fail

The rule is, your Hallowe’en costume should be either be a horror creature, or else something  clever and funny and preferably inanimate.  Be a deer or a demon or an avocado or a donut or a steak. Don’t dress up as any kind of a person.

The only time you may dress up as a person is when you already look exactly like that kind of person, in which case, depending on the circumstances, it may or may not be much of a costume, but I digress.

A year ago I broke this rule and here’s what happened.

I am a middle-aged blond woman.  I went as Mario from Super Mario Bros. My costume consisted of a fake black mustache and the trademark Mario hat.  (It was a costume of convenience. My kids had developed an interest in Mario and Luigi, and had already acquired the props.)  It was a not terribly convincing costume, since with my shocking white skin and light-colored, curly hair poking out from under the hat, there was no disguising that I was a lady of Dutch ancestry. Also, I don’t own any blue coveralls.

Trick-or-treating in our then neighborhood was the most fun I’ve ever had trick-or-treating. People decorate their houses, come outside, and sit in lawn chairs in costume, holding bowls of candy, sometimes flanked by a glowing brazier or a bowl of dry ice.  The streets throng with families.  All the little kids and many of the parents are excitedly complimenting one another’s costumes. Cars, if they venture out at all, drive at 2 mph. Everyone is feeling happy and excited.  No one is drunk, but their inhibitions are down. It’s a real party atmosphere.

(The year my one son was two, he was so cute that people kept giving him extra candy. After an hour, his trick-or-treat bucket was so heavy that he couldn’t carry it.  But I’m digressing again.)

When I showed up in my Mario costume, it was immediately recognized by a mustachioed, curly-haired man about my own age. He pointed at me and yelled at the top of his voice,

Look! It’s an older Greek woman!

Then as I doubled over in laughter, he added, “That’s how we tease our Grandmas.”

Darn. I was trying to appropriate Italian culture.

No, Really, God IS for Everyone!

God and His Bureaucrats

Several years ago now, I found myself sitting in a house in a jungle somewhere in Southeast Asia, among a small ethnic group whose name has been redacted so I can write about them.  Although I knew Christian believers in that group, on this night I was sitting across from a devotee of the local religion. 

We sat cross-legged on the ironwood floor, and he had a cigarette pack on the floor in front of him.  He was very passionate about our topic of discussion.  He didn’t raise his voice, but I could tell he was worked up.  Whenever he was making an especially important point, he would pick up the cigarette pack and slam it down again.

He spoke thus:

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that we [of this local religion] don’t believe in God. That’s a slander. We do (slam) believe in God. But we also (slam) believe in (slam) His bureaucrats.”

This is a very Southeast Asian view of the spiritual world: the heavenly bureaucracy. You can see it presented visually in some Hindu temples that resemble a tall, pointy mountain, and this mountain is covered with little niches, and in each niche is a statue of a divine being.  They are not placed in there randomly. There is a place for each of them, and each in its place.

This view is also reflected in the governing structure of the country in which I was sitting at the time. At the top is the President. Below him (or her) are the governors of the provinces. Below these, in descending order, are five or six additional ranks, each responsible over a smaller geographical area, until you get down to Village Head (or mayor). And below him, in each village, are the heads of families. It’s an elaborate bureaucratic system, but everyone knows the names of all the ranks. They have to deal with them daily. And of course, you always show respect to anyone with a rank anywhere above your own.

My pagan friend went on,

“Think about it. You wouldn’t expect the President to attend your wedding. Maybe not even the Governor. But you might get [the next rank down], or [the rank below that]. Now think about how many weddings must take place on a given day, all over the world. God can’t possibly be at all of them. He would send His bureaucrats.”

His point was that showing disrespect to the local spiritual “bureaucrats” would be akin to dishonoring God.

Now, clearly this person’s concept of God was anthropomorphic. He thought of Him as a big President in the sky, not omnipresent, not capable of (or even probably interested in) attending all the weddings. However, my main point with this story is that this person, out in the jungle, subscribing to a spiritual view of the world that most readers of this blog might find strange or even comical, had a concept of God as distinct from lesser gods. As he would be the first to tell you, he knew about and honored God.

This people group had no problem grasping the concept of “the Creator.” They had a beautiful, polysyllabic name for Him [again, redacted in exchange for the privilege of writing about these folks]. When individuals from this ethnic group became Christians, that name was the name they used in their prayers.

Local Religions Ground but also Divide

I have a lot of sympathy for local deities and mythologies. It is good for people to have their own culture and mythology, to feel grounded in something to which they legitimately belong. But in a cosmopolitan culture (and we are not the first cosmopolitan culture to discover this) there is a problem with just following our ancestors’ lead for the totality of our religion. The problem is that ancestral religion and identity politics don’t mix. I probably don’t need to elaborate on this.  You can find your own examples of the impossible dilemmas it creates. The world is bristling with them.

United by One God

I could probably write another 1,000 words about this problem and cast no more light on it.  So instead, listen to the words of Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, as he spoke to a group of sophisticated pagan philosophers:

“People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

(You wouldn’t think “He determined the exact places where they would live” is very surprising, but I have heard that it brought one group of native translators to tears. They had thought that no one, human or divine, cared about them; that they had been forgotten.)

“God did this so that people would seek Him and perhaps reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”

 (By the way, notice how he alludes to the wisdom already found in their own culture. But Paul, who was bi-cultural, isn’t finished. Now he is going to call them to a purer, more direct worship of the Creator.)

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all people by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:22 – 31