Why Everyone Should Be Educated about the Ancient Near East

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

Public Domain. Maarten van Heemskerck’s interpretation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. In the background, the ziggurat (temple) towers over the city.

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.  Temple 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. 

Public Domain image of Moloch, the Phonecian god. Children were sacrificed by being placed inside the fiery metal statue. In some versions, the statue is shown with arms stretched out in front of it, into which the baby is placed. This god was popular in Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest.

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

Public Domain. The temple of Jupiter towers over Rome during the days of the Republic.

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.

Public Domain. Pre-Aztec pyramid/temple complex at Teotihuacan.

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 character.

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.

Sources

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.

“Please God, Don’t Let Me Become a Christian Novelist!”

He doesn’t know it, but crime novelist Andrew Klavan is a mentor of mine.

Klavan grew up as a secular Jew on Long Island. After his bar mitzvah, he threw away hundreds of dollars of expensive gifts because he realized that neither he nor his parents believed the Hebrew Scriptures that he had just professed. He proceeded to do some time as a journalist and to write a bunch of hard-boiled crime novels. He liked noir because it takes an unflinching look at life in all its grittiness … a perspective that he thought was the opposite of that taken by religion.

As he got older, Klavan’s love for reality led him to become a Christian in his late 40s. It’s a transformation that he chronicles in his memoir, The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.

Becoming a Christian always solves some problems but causes others. As he realized that he was about to become a Christian, one of Klavan’s fears was that he would no longer be able to write hard-boiled fiction. He remembers pleading, “Please, God, don’t let me become a ‘Christian novelist’!”
Of course, by ‘Christian novelist’ he did not mean the likes of G.K. Chesterton, George McDonald, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O’Connor. He meant someone who writes novels (or movies) in which nothing seriously bad ever happens.

Klavan does a great job of articulating a philosophy of fiction that has also become my own. No, the sex and violence in my novels isn’t as explicit as in his. (We all have to find our own ‘ew’ threshold.) But I do believe that, if you are going to have real characters, they should be flawed. And if you are going to have a real plot, then – you can’t get away from it – at some point ‘the worst’ has to happen.

Klavan explains how a Christian can even dream of writing about sex, violence, and cussing in the five-minute video below.

“Haven’t You People Ever Watched Any Sci-Fi?”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The following is a rant.  Enjoy.

There is a type of sci-fi that is triumphalist.  In this kind of sci-fi, people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal, enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and all goes well.  This is welcomed as a good thing. 

Then there is another type of sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased out.  This is what sci-fi is for, after all: thought experiments.  “What would be all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but routine?”  This thoughtful strain of sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.

It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers.  All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well.  I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”

Here are a few examples …                   

Think it would be great if all parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?

Go watch Gattica.

Predicting people’s behavior and assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions?  Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?

Gattica again.

Interested in “designer babies?”

There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that created them.  They are understandably bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their genetically edited strength and smarts.

How about perfectly executed plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.

Creating a human/animal hybrid?

The movie Splice.

Storing all our important personal information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?

The Net.

Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?

1984.

What if we take this wonderful stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it at any time?

Back to The Outer Limits.  In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies.  The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace.  Poor guy.  (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)

How about “smart homes,” where our electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much more?

I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can function.

Really smart AI?

The Terminator.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised communally?

Logan’s Run and The Office of Mercy.  Oh, and Soviet orphanages.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised in families, but these families are assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?

The Giver by Lois Lowry.

How about we find or create a portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it?  Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …

Event Horizon.

(But actually, we shouldn’t need a movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything through a portal that we don’t know where it goes.)

OK, OK, you’re right … no one is seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes.  Not that I am aware of.  Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:

“I know, let’s bring back an extinct creature and create an ecosystem for it to live in!”

The Jurassic Park franchise.

Post your own examples below.

Genetic Engineering in the Ancient World

We have discussed in previous posts the idea that the people of the very ancient world were much smarter than we give them credit for, probably smarter than we are today.  This post will explore the idea that genetic engineering may have been tried thousands of years ago.  By the nature of the topic, the post will be highly speculative and will contain some stuff that is not for the squeamish.

Old Testament Laws Against Mixing Kinds

The Old Testament is famous for puzzling and obscure laws.  Here are a few:

“Keep my decrees.  Do not mate different kinds of animals.  Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.  Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”  Leviticus 19:19

At first glance these three rules seem arbitrary.  But they may actually have been a prohibition on attempting to create genetic hybrids of animals or plants. 

This verse comes in the midst of a passage that forbids the Israelites to do a number of different, mostly disgusting things that were part of contemporary pagan practice in Canaan, including child sacrifice, “divination,” self-mutilation, bestiality, and “eating meat with the blood still in it.”  Translated into modern terms, all of these practices could potentially relate to genetic manipulation.  They reflect an attitude towards people as disposable products (child sacrifice); a desire to carve up the human body and make it into whatever we desire (self-mutilation); a desire to find out hidden knowledge or secrets so as to take control of them (divination); and a desire to mix characteristics of humans and animals (bestiality, consuming blood).  We know that these impulses were not confined to Canaan in the ancient world.  See nearly every Greek myth ever recorded, but the particularly the story of the Minotaur.

Of course, we tend to think of these practices as religious, and no doubt they were.  But this doesn’t mean they were not also an attempt to alter the nature of things in the physical world.  Pagan religion is often a path to maintain the agricultural cycle and prevent infertility.  These particular pagans took things one step further and sought to “improve” these natural processes.

The Canaanites may even have had some success with their genetic experiments.  Israelite spies managed to bring back from Canaan a single cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a pole between two men (or possibly between two poles, depending on the translation, which would make it even bigger). (Numbers 13:23)

Genetic Engineering in Really Ancient Times

The Israelite conquest of Canaan took place about 1400 BC according to conventional dating.  This is very recent compared to the dates this blog usually has in view.  It is more than a thousand years after the Sumerians, well after the probable date of the Tower of Babel, and even farther after the speculated date for the Giza pyramids.   Many of the hints of genetic engineering – both in the Bible in other historical sources – come from these even more ancient times. 

Hints from the Bible

There is a strong emphasis in the creation account in Genesis on all things reproducing themselves “according to their kinds.” Almost every time a particular class of plant, bird, fish or animal is mentioned, it is followed by the phrase “according to their kinds” or “each according to its kind.”  This was the intended order of creation. 

It was violated a mere six chapters (but possibly untold thousands of years) later, when the “sons of God” (some of kind spiritual or transdimensional beings) lusted after human women and “married any of them they chose.” (Genesis 6:1 – 3)   Their hybrid offspring were the Nephilim, who were giants.

The speculation goes that these “sons of God” or their hybrid descendants may also have begun to violate animals, either sexually (ew!!!) or through some other, unknown means of genetic manipulation, and that people began to learn these techniques and the attendant values.  The general picture is a slow obliteration of all “kinds.”  There would have been creatures running around that were hybrid animals (chimeras perhaps?), other creatures that were part human and part “divine,” and perhaps “divine” animals and animal/people as well.  The world was on its way to complete biological, sexual, and perhaps even dimensional chaos.  Soon no one would be safe from any kind of sexual violence or grisly experiment.  This was the world that, thousands of years later, the Canaanites were still trying to bring back.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.  God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.”  (Gen. 6:11 – 12)  The word corrupt here may mean more than just morally corrupt.  There had been some deep perversion of the natural order of things.  So God decided to destroy all the people and birds and animals (verse 7).  He chose Noah.  My translation of verse 9 says that Noah was “blameless among the people of his time.”  It is possible that a better translation of this phrase is “perfect in his generations.”  That is, Noah was still 100% genetically human.   His family line had not intermarried with the gods and had not been genetically manipulated (Van Dorn 36).   God then asked Noah to gather “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate.”  He was going to re-start the world using the originally created kinds.

It is possible that the secrets of genetic manipulation were not completely lost after the Flood.  Around the time of the tower of Babel, we get the figure of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before [or against] the Lord,” who founds a number of ancient cities and is later worshiped as a god by the Babylonians.  Genesis 10:8 says in the NIV that Nimrod “grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth,” but the grammar allows for the translation “began to become a giant.”  (Van Dorn 77)   Perhaps he found a way to alter his own genetic code.  That would certainly have made his city-building task easier, especially if he was planning to use megaliths.


Hints from Other Historical Sources

The general picture we have painted of the world immediately pre-Flood is a terrifying one.  It is also strikingly similar to the picture of mythological times found in cultures worldwide.  

Greek myths, as everyone knows, routinely feature gods impregnating human women, giants, part-god “heroes” (often very badly behaved themselves), and entities that mix characteristics of animal, human, and/or divine.  Not to mention countless “monsters” created by the gods.  It all adds up to a portrayal of a world that is fascinating from a distance, but also chaotic and deeply unsettling.  It is not a world that a sane person would wish to live in.

But this is not confined to Greek mythology.  Stories of giants are found everywhere.  So are stories of human/divine intermarriage, and stories of people mating with various animals (or even inanimate objects such as stones), and producing monsters.  It is a truism that these are common features of myth.  All these very strange ideas are, no doubt, deep in the human mind.  But perhaps there is a story behind the way they got there.  Perhaps this was, in fact, the world that humankind lived in for some generations. 

Finally, I give you a visual image that is not proof of anything, but that might be suggestive.  It is the caduceus, a very ancient symbol that came to be associated with the Greek god Hermes in his capacity as a healer and as a patron of doctors.  It is two snakes entwined around a winged pole.  The symbolic association of snakes with healing in world mythology is too big a topic for a post that has already gone over 1,000 words.  But, if you buy in to the idea that ancient people were very smart and may have engaged in genetic manipulation, it is interesting that this ancient medical symbol resembles a double helix, or DNA molecule.

Sources

Giants: Sons of the gods, by Douglas Van Dorn.  Waters of Creation Publishing, 1614 Westin Drive, Erie, CO 80516, 2013.  Van Dorn’s book was the source for all the original ideas in this post.

Dictionary of Native American Mythology, ed. Sam D. Gill & Irene F. Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1992.  The Dictionary contains many references to giants, monsters, and to sexual activity between people, animals, rocks, etc.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire.  Scholastic, March 2010.  First published 1962.  This is a classic illustrated book for children that sanitizes the myths somewhat.  Of course there are many other reference books for Greek myths. In addition to many other suggestive stories, D’Aulaires’ mentions that the smith god, Hephaestus, “built for himself two robots of gold and silver to help him about.  They had mechanical brains and could think for themselves.   They could even speak with their tongues of silver.  They also served him as helpers in his workshop on Olympus.” (page 28)  Here again we see at least the idea of very advanced technology in an ancient context in which we would not expect it.

The Ship of Theseus: Or, What Makes You, You?

This post is a response to the following May 2018 article at Tor.com: The Ship of Theseus Problem Reveals A Lot About SciFi. (And by the way, good job, author Corey J. White, for getting “a lot” correct!)

The opening paragraphs of the article go like this:


The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment first posited by Plutarch in Life of Theseus. It goes a little something like this:
A ship goes out in a storm and is damaged. Upon returning to shore, the ship is repaired, with parts of it being replaced in the process. Again and again the ship goes out, and again it is repaired, until eventually every single component of the ship, every plank of wood, has been replaced.
Is the repaired ship still the same ship that first went out into the storm? And if not, then at what point did it become a different ship?
Now, say you collected every part of the ship that was discarded during repairs, and you used these parts to rebuild the ship. With the two ships side-by-side, which one would be the true Ship of Theseus? Or would it be both? Or neither?

Corey J. White, May 31, 2018, at Tor.com

The Essence of a Thing – Or Person

White then proceeds to apply this thought experiment to all sorts of situations that routinely arise in sci-fi, such as Darth Vader being “more machine than man,” teleportation, cloning, and a really scary one: a digital upload of a person’s consciousness. He uses the Ship of Theseus problem to raise questions about “the intrinsic thingness of a thing.”

Of course, questions about “the thingness of a thing” get thornier and higher stakes the more personlike the thing gets. I want to give my thoughts about a few of these questions as they apply to people. Then you can give your thoughts below.

Changes to the Body

I don’t know if this has been your experience, but when I was a kid, I tended to feel that all parts of a person’s physical appearance were very important to who they were – their “signature look,” if you will. So it was upsetting if someone who usually wore glasses took off their glasses, or if Mom got a dramatic new haircut, or if Dad shaved his mustache. Things seem so eternal when we are kids, even little details like hair length that are actually very temporal.

Then, as we get older, we learn otherwise. We find out from personal experience that we can cut off all of our hair, go through dramatic physical changes like puberty, maybe even lose a limb, and we are still exactly the same person. Our soul is something different from our body, though it expresses itself through our body. Even if about 40% of our body was gone, replaced with machine parts (as Darth Vader), we would have the same soul, and the soul would colonize the changing body and make it its own. (This can require a process, though, which might be part of the reason puberty is so difficult.)

Cloning

It’s my belief that if a clone were made of you, it would turn out to be a different person who shared your genetic code. Not another self, but an identical twin. This is because every single time a baby grows, it shows up with a soul. This is part of the reason there are ethical problems with cloning. People might be tempted to treat their clones as no more than material made from their own body, when in fact they would be people with human dignity of their own.

A Digital Upload of Your Entire Consciousness

I don’t actually know whether this one is possible (and I sort of, fervently, hope not). However, the idea is one that is likely to be tried, because it is a common trope in sci-fi.

White mentions that this idea shows up in Altered Carbon, which I have never read or watched. But it is not new in sci-fi. I remember an H.P. Lovecraft short story in which some crab-like aliens remove a man’s brain and put it in a jar because that is is the only way they can take “him” with them to space. (He can still talk to them if they hook the jar up to a radio.) In C.S. Lewis’s sci-fi/horror book That Hideous Strength, an eminent scientist has his head removed and kept alive in a lab, in hopes of achieving eternal life. In both of these stories, “digitally uploading consciousness” is attempted with cruder technology, but the concept is basically the same.

The thing to note about these two examples is that they are horror stories. The attempt to separate the human mind from the body is a BAD idea, associated with death, insanity, and having your head cut off. The body “doesn’t matter” in the sense that it can be altered a great deal and you can still be you … but it does matter in the sense that part of being a human is being an embodied mind, not a mind removed from a body. The attempt to remove it seems to me like a violation of our basic nature. The sense of violation is quite strong in both of the stories I mention above.

Would it Work, Though?

It might work. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t, but there are any number of techniques that violate the human body and soul which ought not to be tried but nevertheless have been.

This idea has been explored (with a bit more ambivalence than I am here showing) in the book Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty, 2018). In this book, cloning technology has reached a level where anyone who chooses to do so can have their body cloned, their mind uploaded, and when the body clone is ready, the person’s mind complete with memories can be installed in the brand-new clone, which comes out like a healthy person in their early 20s. In other words, people who choose to do so can live practically forever. Of course, this practice opens the possibility of all kinds of abuses, all of which have been outlawed, all of which still take place, including the incredibly scary mind hacking.

Don’t worry, that’s not even a spoiler. That’s just the setup for the book.

If all of this were possible – obviously, I disapprove, but if it were possible – I would have to say that the person’s mind, even when it has been uploaded and is just being stored, is still that person. And when they “wake” in a freshly cloned body, they are the same person.

Having said that, I do think that a person would lose something of personhood if their mind were stored on a computer for a very long time, long enough that they started to forget what it’s like to have a body. I believe that the ways we think, feel, and operate in the world are tied to our bodies in important ways; that, in fact, it’s not possible to function as a human being without having some kind of body. So, if your mind were stored on a computer indefinitely, I’m not sure at what point you would stop being you, but I have a gut feeling that you would. Maybe you would be in a sort of hibernating state anyway.

Some people agree with me. The theory is called embodied cognition. In fact, AI developers are finding that maybe they have to give their robots the ability to move around in their physical environment in order for the robots to learn certain things and develop anything approaching common sense. (Not that I am an advocate for this either, but that’s another post. Total Luddite, that’s me.)

When Your Mind Changes

Now, the really strange thing is this. Your mind can change a great, great deal, and you can still be you. This is something we have all experienced when going through puberty. And all throughout our lives, our worldview and values can change enormously and still we remain ourselves. The Apostle Paul was the same person after his Damascus Road experience … even though all of his mental furniture had been upended.

This is a great mystery.

On the other hand, there are mental changes ( Alzheimer’s is the prime example) that truly do seem to destroy the person so that they are no longer “there.” This is a terrible thing, and another great mystery.

I realize this is a huge can of worms to open at the end of an already wide-ranging article, but I couldn’t post about what makes us ourselves without at least mentioning mental changes.

To avoid the deep sense of existential angst that will no doubt come over you after reading this article, allow me to close with this poem which I memorized many years ago but have since lost the reference to:

“Thou shalt know Him when He comes/Not by any din of drums/Nor by vantage of His airs/Nor by anything He wears/Neither by His crown nor by His gown./But His presence known shall be/By the holy harmony/Which His coming makes in thee.”

The Iroquois Kinship System

Alert readers may notice that in my second novel, The Strange Land, my main character’s love interest is also his cousin.

Ewww.

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.

But wait.

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 …

Ew! Moments in Books

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Most books have a gross or horrifying part. When I was a kid, I disliked these parts. (I was an impressionable child. I had nightmares for what seemed like months after someone told me the story of how Odysseus used a heated log to poke out the cyclops’s eye.)

The ew! moments in books are sometimes all that people remember about them. I can remember a few occasions when someone would see me reading a book and say, “Ew, that’s the book where _________ happens.” And in the blank was always the most disgusting incident, which usually was just an aside and wasn’t even a major part of the plot. I guess you could say that grossness is salient.

Why Authors Include Ew! Moments

I never thought I’d include ew! moments in my own novels, but lo and behold, they have quite a few of them. It’s a matter of simple realism. My plots deal with sometimes desperate survival situations. They include death and birth (a lot of births). One of the characters is paraplegic, which comes with its own indignities. I try to handle any necessary grossness tastefully, but I don’t skip it entirely, because I don’t want to romanticize anything … not parenthood, not paralysis, not the nomadic lifestyle. Also, it is through these horrifying and humbling incidents that the characters grow. If I skipped all that, I’d be skipping the whole story.

It turns out that grossness is a part of life. We might not want to dwell on it, but we can’t completely avoid it either. And this is true for any book that aspires to being realistic.

Fantasy author Neil Gaiman titled his 2015 short story collection Trigger Warning for the following reason:

We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what others see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me … but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could. (page xiii)

Ew! Levels Are Culturally Determined

How much ew! to include in fiction is a convention that has changed over the years. One hundred fifty years ago, the standard was basically … none. Take The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I adore this book. It paints a perfect picture of the horror that results when we are enslaved to sin … whether through addiction to a substance or to some aspect of our own sin nature. (In Dr. Jekyll’s case, it’s literally both.) The horror in this book does not come from any gross-out scenes. It comes from the progressive loss of self-control and the dawning realization that you are the monster. However, I can think of one part of the story where Robert Louis Stevenson’s discretion causes some confusion. Dr. Jekyll mentions that his “pleasures” were “undignified” and that he created Hyde as a way to allow himself to indulge his pleasures without Dr. Jekyll suffering any “indignity.” As a modern reader, it’s not immediately obvious to me what this means. My guess is that Dr. Jekyll had started out frequenting music halls and had progressed to brothels. But I don’t know, because he is too dignified to tell us. Perhaps Victorian readers would immediately have known what was meant by “undignified pleasures.”

Nowadays, obviously, there are entire genres dedicated to ew!. Of course this is just as misguided as the Victorian standard. Grossness is a part of life and so must be included. But it’s not the main story.

It’s Good for Ew!

How much ew! to include in your reading is a personal decision. I can tolerate more of it now than when I was younger, and that’s as it should be. For example, it was just within the last few years that I read Stephen King’s Misery. I deliberately avoided it before because I didn’t think I could handle the horror at the time. I still think that was a good decision. The story is most famous for the scene where the rabid fan, Annie, amputates the author’s leg at the ankle. But as you might expect, the real horror in the story does not come from that scene alone, but from the increasingly complete picture we get of Annie’s mind. And the story is not only about horror. It’s about literary snobbery (really!), the creative process, the relationships readers have with books and that authors have with readers. But I doubt I could have appreciated all of those themes (or even the glimpses of Annie’s mind) if I had read it as a younger person.

Having said that, there was one scene in Misery, worse even than the amputation scene, which I skipped as soon as I realized what was coming. You gotta know your limits. You do not have any obligation to read every horrifying scene that is out there.

Yet despite that know your limits is a good rule, it has sometimes been the cringiest scenes in books that have done me the most good. Yes, even moral good. They bring home to the reader the details of what some people have to live through (such as sexual assault in Pillars of the Earth or leprosy in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever), thereby increasing empathy. For those of us fortunate enough not to have grown up suffering war, crime, or abuse, our first encounter with the reality of these things was probably through books.

Of course, some horrors are entirely fictional (vampires, zombies, aliens, portals to hell). Yet even these are telling us something that is in some sense true about the world. There really are evil spiritual powers, and they really do seek to affect human history, and sometimes it can get very bad. In the case of these fictional or metaphorical horrors, reading about them inoculates the reader against the shock of that particular thing. Hopefully we will never encounter it in exactly that form, but we are going to come up against the concept – and the power – again.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to encounter a particular horror for the first time in the context of solitary reading, where you have some space and time on your own to be shocked by it, go back and re-read it, meditate on it, and ultimately, to face that this is part of reality. And maybe to go for help.

Here is Jordan Peterson making a similar point about why you should invite Maleficent to your child’s christening:

Now, read the comments section at your own risk. It could really get away from us if people start telling their own ew! stories.

This is the Book Dan Brown Wishes He Wrote

Why is it that every book about ancient mysteries has to do one of two things …

  • Follow a present-day character hot on the trail of The Truth, who is all the while being chased by some Shadowy Organization, such that every chapter ends in a cliffhanger?
  • Overturn Everything We Think We Know about … God, Christianity, and/or our identity as human beings?

And usually it does both of these at once.

The classic example is, of course, The DaVinci Code. But I have read a few others in the same genre. (What’s that you say? Why do I keep picking them up, if I dislike them so much? Well, durnit, I just love a good ancient mystery. Sometimes I can’t resist the promise that All Will Be Revealed. And it will be More Horrible Than We Can Imagine. … Garr! I fell for it again!)

So, I just finished another book in the same genre. But it is, I must say, much better done than The DaVinci Code. (Hence the title of this post.) The mystery was creepier and more ancient. The action was tense but not juvenile. The psychology was sound. The travel-writing aspect of it was terrific. Vivid physical and cultural descriptions made me feel I was really there, whether the setting was Sanliurfa, Turkey, or the Isle of Man. Also, although it does end with a supposed debunking of Genesis, I did not get the idea that this was the author’s goal. Instead, I got the idea that the author was interested in the actual … mystery.

The Genesis Secret (2009), by Tom Knox, follows the adventures of Rob Luttrell (coincidentally, a London-based journalist just like Knox), who is sent to investigate the archaeological dig at Gobekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. Gobekli Tepe dates to 10,000 BC, which according to received archaeological theory makes it the oldest known human structure (apart from inhabited caves). Naturally, things get spooky. Secret societies happen. Bloodshed follows.

The Shadowy Organization, in this book, is headed by a sociopath who is very, very interested in all the creative methods of human sacrifice practiced around the world by the ancients. I skipped one scene in the book, and there were others that I probably should have skipped. Even more hair-raising, because they actually happened, are the historical descriptions of what used to be done in service to various gods. (Go out and learn about Moloch, the Blood Eagle, or the Flayed Lord. Or, better yet, don’t.)

But the reason this book is appearing on this blog is that Knox explores some of the same questions we are interested in … How did the hunter-gatherers at Gobekli Tepe create this amazing stone temple complex, when they “didn’t have agriculture” and “didn’t have pottery”? He gets fairly deeply into the tale of gods intermarrying with people and producing giants, which is sketched out lightly in Genesis and is greatly expanded upon in the Book of Enoch. He also raises questions like, Where did humankind get this idea of sacrifice? Why do the strongest and most inspirational leaders also turn out to be the cruelest and most violent?

His answers are decidedly humanistic. For example, the idea of gruesome human sacrifice is linked to … belief in God. (That’s right. Not false gods.) He even credits “the ancient Israelites” for child sacrifices to Moloch … all but ignoring the fact that this was a CANAANITE custom which Israel’s God told them REPEATEDLY not to do and which He NEVER commanded.

Nevertheless, The Genesis Secret contains lots of great research that is capably handled with chilling hints, spooky moments, and a mostly satisfying, mostly slow reveal. I recommend this book if you have a strong stomach and are interested in the ancient mysteries genre. Meanwhile, the world will have to wait a little longer for novels about ancient mysteries that actually take place in the ancient, mysterious times, and that lead us closer to God instead of making Him disappear.