There has been much debate about what is the Best Meal in the Universe, but I am here to settle it, now, today.
It’s fish and chips.
Jesus almost served this meal when He fed the 5,000. That was fish and bread — fish and a starch. It was close. But as potatoes had not yet been brought over from the New World, the meal eaten by the 5,000 did not yet reach the height of perfection.
Similarly, in other parts of the world you might eat fish with other starches: rice, pounded taro, breadfruit. Even corn (see Shrimp and Grits). These meals are close, so close. But after many millennia of the development of human cuisines, the word is finally in on the perfect meal.
And it’s fish and chips.
If you need a vegetable (you know, so as not to get bound up), please feel free to add coleslaw. Also, malt vinegar is definitely part of the meal.
This is from an old Doonesbury comic by Gary Trudeau. My dad used to be a big Trudeau fan and had a large collection of his books. I devoured them as a kid, which I didn’t realize was giving me a very leftie view of modern American history. But it’s funny little human moments like the one above that make Trudeau (at least his older work) so appealing.
Interestingly, “Herbert” looks a bit like one of my Linguistics professors in college, except for the cigarette.
And now … I actually am a Latin teacher. And d— fine one.
This post might be a little … rambling. A poorly thought-out combination of recent events in my life, vague political implications, and nostalgic revisiting of old favorite fantasy novels. You know, the way blogs used to be back in the day. Because I am just so dedicated to bringing you, my faithful Internet friends, content, even if it is crummy content.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve done a couple of knitting marathons (about which, more in the near future). I like having something to watch while knitting, and the least repellant thing on Netflix was The Lord of the Rings, so I have recently watched through all three movies. I enjoyed the movies mostly because they reminded me of the books, which I haven’t read in a long time. Yeah, I’m a purist. I couldn’t believe they left out Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Wights, and they completely messed up the scene in Bree, and they Hollywooded up Gandalf’s confrontation with Saruman and with Theoden, and they destroyed Faramir … but even so, even so, they kept enough of the original plot that watching the movies was edifying.
The theme that jumped out to me this time — well, there were a couple. One was the way that every single member of the party pays a high cost in the service of the quest. Even people with fairly minor roles, such as Merry and Pippin, suffer greatly – Merry from stabbing the Witch King, and Pippin has to deal with Denethor’s madness. Multiple people had to be willing to pour out their lives. Not just Gandalf, and not just Frodo. This rings true to me. Whether we are fighting the good fight by building a family, a school, or a local church, everyone feels like they are giving 110%, and then the job just barely gets done.
The other theme that I noticed this time was that of despair. Denethor succumbs to despair, kills himself, and nearly kills Faramir. Well before that, he essentially abandoned his duty to the people of Minas Tirith because he believed the cause was lost. And it turns out, this was a stratagem of the enemy, who had been showing him misleading things in the Palantir.
Meanwhile, over in Rohan, Wormtongue has gotten Theoden to abandon his duties to his people by convincing him that he’s old and tired and the heroic age has ended. Wormtongue gets inside Eowyn’s head, getting her to see Edoras, the glorious hall of her ancestors, as a stupid redneck hovel, and her own role in it as boring and stultifying. She ends up, essentially, suicidal, but luckily the presence of Aragorn has turned her suicidal impulses in the direction of brave self-sacrifice, rather than foolish action like Denethor’s. But this is another case where despair doesn’t just happen, it is a direct, intentional action of the enemy.
Other characters suffer feelings of, or temptations to, despair, pretty much in direct proportion as they come in contact with the enemy. Physical contact with the Ringwraiths pulls a personal partially into their world, as happens to Frodo at Weathertop, and the Eowyn and to Merry, who says to Pippin, “Are you going to bury me?” Victims don’t just despair of victory, but they doubt their own judgment, their own senses, even their own existence. It’s at times like these that we need the shoulder of a friend.
James Lindsay has posted recently about how modern-day deceivers will try to induce despair by robbing us of epistemic authority (“you don’t know what you are talking about.” “Do you have a degree?”), psychological authority (“you are crazy/phobic”), and moral authority (“you are a bigot/oppressor” “It’s so heartless/insensitive to say that”). The goal is to get their interlocutor to stop trusting their own mind and conscience, and just accept the new system of thought they are being offered. Perhaps this podcast of his was the thing that caused me to notice this dynamic happening in Middle Earth.
Anyway, you can make your own applications. Don’t despair. Your mind is probably working OK. You are probably not a crazy bigot oppressor who doesn’t have a working conscience. You are not the only one who has questions. There are friendly shoulders to lean on.
I was going to call this post “Don’t Despair,” but I thought that would sound too cliched and I wasn’t sure I could follow through on the promise of such a title.
But as [the baker] ran, he stumbled and fell heavily. Curdie hastened to help him up, and found he had bruised his forehead badly. He swore grievously at the stone for tripping him up, declaring it was the third time he had fallen over it within the last month; and saying what was the king about that he allowed such a stone to stick up forever on the main street of his royal residence of Gwyntystorm! What was a king for if he could not take care of his people’s heads! And he stroked his forehead tenderly.
“Was it your head or your feet that ought to bear the blame of your fall?” asked Curdie.
“Why, you booby of a miner! My feet, of course,” answered the baker.
“Nay, then,” said Curdie, “the king can’t be to blame.”
“Oh, I see!” said the baker. “You’re laying a trap for me. Of course, if you come to that, it was my head that ought to have looked after my feet. But it is the king’s part to look after us all, and have his streets smooth.”
“Well, I don’t see,” said Curdie, “why the king should take care of the baker, when the baker’s head won’t take care of the baker’s feet.”
“Who are you to make game of the king’s baker?” cried the man in a rage.
But instead of answering, Curdie went up to the bump on the street which had repeated itself on the baker’s head, and turning the hammer end of his mattock, struck it such a blow that it flew wide in pieces. Blow after blow he struck until he had leveled it with the street.
But out flew the barber upon him in a rage. “What do you break my window for, you rascal, with your pickaxe?”
“I am very sorry,” said Curdie. “It must have been a bit of stone that flew from my mattock. I couldn’t help it, you know.”
“Couldn’t help it! A fine story! What do you go breaking the rock for — the very rock upon which the city stands?”
“Look at your friend’s forehead,” said Curdie. “See what a lump he has got on it with falling over that same stone.”
“What’s that to my window?” cried the barber. “His forehead can mend itself; my poor window can’t.”
“But he’s the king’s baker,” said Curdie, more and more surprised at the man’s anger.
“What’s that to me? This is a free city. Every man here takes care of himself, and the king takes care of us all. I’ll have the price of my window out of you, or the exchequer shall pay for 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.