Ch-ch-ch-changes

The autumnal equinox has passed. When the alarm goes off in the morning, it is still dark outside. Darkness falls again soon after supper, so my evening reading and writing is done with the help of electric lights. The darkness contributes to the melancholy feeling I have about some other changes that happened in my life this month.

For the last ten years, I have been an adjunct instructor for a two-year college. I have taught at a branch campus of a state university; the branch is located on military property. Some of my students have been active military personnel; some retired from the military; some spouses or children of military personnel; and some simply nearby residents taking a college class. I have had students old enough to remember the day President Kennedy was shot; I have had students too young to remember the day that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I’ve heard many anecdotes about military life including events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I began by teaching a course in World Religions since my degrees were in the field of religion. Most of my classes have been a survey of world history. Two nights a week for sixteen weeks I have guided students from the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, right up to current events. Some of my students have said that they never liked history until they took my class. Others have contributed to the class by sharing personal experiences in other cultures, things they’ve been taught in other classes, and things they’ve picked up from the Internet. I hope that among my dozens of students over the last ten years, a good number have gained not merely a few new facts but a way of learning about history that helps them lead more informed and interesting lives.

My summer class and fall classes this year were canceled due to low enrollment. The administration of the state university has been promoting online learning, and it appears that we have reached the point where more students would rather learn online than in the classroom. I’m not opposed to the latest technology, but when it comes to teaching history, I prefer the classroom experience. I like to see the facial expressions and body language of the people I am teaching. I like the conversations before and after class that cover many things not related to the subject matter of the class. I like seeing students interact with one another.

This week I told the school to keep my name off the spring listing of classes. I don’t know yet whether I have taught my last college class, but the burden of preparing a class, then having it canceled at the last moment, is one I want to avoid for a while.

Meanwhile, I am driving a different car. For the last fifteen years I have been driving a 1999 Ford Escort. It had about 50,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it; it now has more than 210,000 miles. The air conditioner hasn’t worked for years, and this fall a faulty sensor started causing a warning light to flicker on and off. In a recent post I described my Escort as “a common Ford to carry me home.” I suspect that the reference to the spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” went past many of my readers.

My parents bought a Ford Granada when I was in high school. I learned how to drive on that car. When I graduated college, they gave me the car as a gift. A few years later I had the chance to buy a Mercury Sable in good condition from an elderly couple who no longer needed two cars. I sold the Granada to a man who lived on the same street as me, attended the same church, and needed a car. The Sable served well for many years, but I ended up buying the Escort fifteen years ago and selling the Sable to a high school girl who was getting her first car. The very same day I bought my current car, my daughter went to her job and heard a fellow employee say that he needed to acquire a car quickly. She told him about my Escort, he came by the house the next morning, test drove it, handed over five hundred dollars, and drove away.

The first car I test drove from the used car lot was a Ford Focus. It seemed OK when I drove it. However, before deciding on the car I asked to check the trunk. Last month two of my daughters were stranded by the side of the rode in a remote place for two hours because they had a flat tire. Although my daughter had owned the car for two years, she did not realize that there was no spare tire and no jack in the trunk. A call to 911 did not get help to them; eventually they found the number for the county sheriff and got the help they needed. Anyhow, when I opened the trunk of the Focus, I found no spare tire and sitting rainwater in the tire well. That ended my interest in the Focus.

The salesman suggested that I test drive a 2004 Honda Accord. It also handled well, it had a spare tire and no water in the trunk, and he dropped the price $1000 to match what he had been asking for the Focus. I went home that Saturday afternoon, did some research on the Accord, called him Monday to say I would buy the car, and drove it home on Tuesday. I’ve had more than a week to get used to it, and I am comfortable with the car. My Escort had a radio with a cassette tape deck, but my Accord has two radios—one with a CD player, which probably came with the car when it was new, and another with lots of lights and buttons that I don’t understand at all. It is set to a local station I enjoy, so I have not done much experimenting with it.

Though it seems strange after all these years to be in a different car—one that is not a Ford—I’m sure that I made the right decision. After all the book of Acts says several times that the first Christians were in one Accord, and what was good enough for them should be good enough for me. J.

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Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.

The spice that changed history–part one

Since early times people have been gathering and using spices and herbs. They make food taste better (and sometimes they hide the taste of spoiling food), but spices can also preserve food, or be used as medicines, or as perfumes, or in potions and salves and ointments. Merchants liked to deal in spices because they are incredibly efficient as merchandise. They are easy to transport and possess a large density of value, whether measured by weight or by volume.

The spice trade—and one spice in particular—helped to shape the history of the world. The Persian Empire built and maintained roads for government messengers and for their army, but these roads were also used by merchants traveling across the Empire from India to Egypt or Greece and back again. India, China, and Rome all imitated the Persian system of roads; the result was an intricate system of travel ways (some involving rivers or coastlines) called the Silk Road. Italian glass was sold in China two thousand years ago, and Chinese silk was sold in Rome. Anything that could be bought and sold traveled along the Silk Road—precious metals, gems, artwork, fabric, fruits, vegetables, animals, and slaves. Spices were an important part of this vast economy which linked three continents and would eventually shape two more.

The most prized spice that traveled the Silk Road was made from a plant indigenous to the islands of Indonesia. Indian travelers brought this spice west, selling it in India and also in Arabia. Europeans first encountered this spice when they traveled to Asia for the Crusades, and it rapidly became popular in Europe. Italian investors tried to raise this spice on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was too temperate for this plant. By the 1400s, as Portuguese explorers traveled along the coast of Africa, they found uninhabited islands of the coast that were ideal for this Indonesian spice. Soon the Portuguese had a booming business raising and selling this popular spice, enriching the nation and making further travel possible.

If you search through your spice rack, looking for this particular spice, you will not find it there. This popular spice is not pepper, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or cloves. Nor is it ginger or mustard. The name of this spice, so desperately wanted in Europe centuries ago, is sugar.

Of course now sugar is treated as a staple, sold in five pound bags like flour rather than in tiny jars or cans. Yet sugar is indeed a spice and was treated as a spice by merchants and by governments that taxed products when they were bought and sold. Europeans were familiar with other sweeteners, such as honey, but cane sugar appealed to the European sweet tooth. This addiction to sugar changed the history of the planet, as I will describe in coming posts. J.

Happy Reformation Day

On Halloween, 1517, Martin Luther changed the world.

Actually, that’s a pretty silly sentence. World-changing powers do not rely upon one person or one event (aside from the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ). What Luther did on October 31, 1517, was one step in the reformation of the Christian Church in western Europe, a reformation that would have enormous consequences in the Americas, in Africa, and in many parts of Asia and of the Pacific Ocean lands. His action that day was a response to a long-standing misunderstanding in European Christianity about God’s forgiveness. To explain that misunderstanding–involving repentance, penance, purgatory, and indulgences–would stretch this post far beyond one thousand words.

But Luther wanted to talk about forgiveness. As a university professor and an Augustinian monk, Luther wanted to bring about a debate among the scholars of the Church. He wrote ninety-five sentences (usually called “theses”) and posted them on the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught theology. The ensuing discussion would bring about Luther’s excommunication (kicking him out of the Roman Catholic Church–in the opinion of the Roman Catholics, denying that Luther was a Christian) and his condemnation as a heretic and an outlaw. Those who agreed with Luther–labeled “Lutherans,” although Luther preferred the label “evangelical”–had sufficient strength in numbers and in political power, to survive these accusations of heresy. They presented a description and defense of their beliefs to the Emperor, Charles V, in 1530. Over the next century they survived two major wars which ended in treaties which allowed them to remain in the Empire (although, once again, the details of these wars and these treaties would stretch this post to unwieldly length).

Why did Luther choose to post his ninety-five sentences on Halloween? All Hallows Eve came just before All Saints’ Day, a day when many people would visit the chapel in Wittenberg to view the relics collected by the Elector, Frederick of Saxony. Viewing these holy items (which were said to include a twig from the burning bush wherein God spoke to Moses, a scrap from the clothes in which the newborn Jesus was swaddled and a wisp of straw from the manger, thirty-five fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and one of the nails which held him to the cross, a thumb of Saint Anne the mother of Mary, a tooth of Saint Jerome, and numerous parts of other saints and mementos of other Biblical events) was said to reduce the time a Christian would spend in purgatory before rising to Paradise. Luther’s challenge to the system of penance and indulgences was timed to gather much attention to his ninety-five sentences for debate.

Luther began, “When our Lord Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ he willed that the entire life of believers was to be one of repentance.” Luther thus distinguished between true repentance and acts of penance. Luther assumed that the pope, Leo X, would be shocked by the outrageous claims of the sellers of indulgences. Yet Luther’s sentences involved further shocking remarks, such as Number 82: “Why does the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there” rather than “for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Western European Christianity was ready for these kinds of challenges. Growing nationalism caused resentment against the political claims of the pope and of the Holy Roman Emperor. Preachers who were Biblically illiterate left their hearers hungry for the truth of God’s Word. Then as now, many Christians resented the appearance that the Christian Church was focused more on money and on political power than on rescuing sinners, healing broken lives, and establishing a genuine connection between God and his people. Luther cared little for the political implications of his sentences. He deeply cared about sinners who were being pushed away from God’s grace by the Church rather than reconciled to God through the Gospel.

Luther himself had faced turmoil in his earlier years. He hated God, thinking of God as a cruel judge who wanted to torture sinners and who demanded good deeds to pay for sins. Luther became an Augustinian monk because of his fear of God’s judgment and his hope to perform enough good deeds to please God. His superior in the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz, encouraged Luther to believe the Bible’s message of God’s love and mercy. Staupitz wanted Luther to find comfort in the promise of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Knowing that we learn best the things we need to know by teaching others, Staupitz arranged for Luther to teach classes on the Bible. Had Staupitz been more open about his convictions, today there would be Staupitzian congregations instead of Lutheran congregations. Yet Staupitz was content to deal one-on-one with desperate men like Martin Luther. Luther was bold enough to challenge the authorities and the system for the good of the Church and for its eventual reformation.

Luther could have been killed for his beliefs. Other men were killed for preaching the same message they had learned from Luther. But Luther lived until 1546. He married a former nun, and they had six children. Luther wrote hymns that are still sung today, and he wrote teaching materials for children and for adults that are still used today. He wrote many significant theological essays during his career, and the notes of his university students have been preserved and published, as well as many of Luther’s sermons. Even though Luther is best remembered for ninety-five sentences, his bold action one Halloween pales in comparison to Luther’s entire contribution to Christianity. J.

The New Social Order in America

An interesting document has recently crossed my desk at work: a booklet titled The New Social Order in America. Here is a selection of statements from the front cover:

“IN THE PRESENT SOCIAL CRISIS

“When old social and economic institutions are being abandoned;

“When government control of industry has been carried to an unprecedented degree;

“When legal regulation of wages and prices is being swiftly extended;

“When taxation of incomes, profits, inheritances, and luxuries is being immensely increased

“When organized labor has acquired unprecedented influence;

“When capitalists of the Charles M. Schwab type predict the approaching domination of America by the manual workers;

“In such a crisis, every thinking person wants to know the rudiments of the great issues up for decision, to think these issues through for himself, and to encourage others to face the social reconstruction with equal frankness….”

It sounds as though They (whoever They are) are threatening America’s liberties and its very survival. Patriots need to be informed of Their agenda to prevent Them from succeeding in Their nefarious schemes. And I think we all know who They are—government types, some of them elected, but many of them appointed and not accountable to the People; agitators, threatening violence in their efforts to reshape our society according to their own mistaken values; liberals, who do not trust liberty and capitalism, but who instead want to play Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. They trust big government to have the answer to all society’s problems. They discourage productivity and thrift, rewarding bad decisions with largesse taken out of the hands of those who have earned what they hold.

But before we get too excited at this document, guaranteed to help us beat back the New Social Order, I want to fill in the gaps that I left in the above quote.

First gap: “When millions of men are being summoned to service by the government;”

Second gap: “…by war necessity;

“When equal suffrage seems imminent;

“When prohibition of the liquor traffic is impending;”

Third gap: “When extreme radicals are the controlling native force in Russia;

“When the British Labor Party is uniting hand and brain workers on a program of fundamental economic reconstruction….”

Have you put those pieces together? A nation at war, sending millions of men into the conflict; equal suffrage imminent; probation impending; radicals in Russia—the date of this document is October, 1918.

And yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The radicals taking over Russia in 1918 were finally kicked out of the government in 1991, but Vladimir Putin was trained by the last generation of those radicals. Hardly anyone in the United States is opposed to women being allowed to vote, or in favor of the prohibition of alcohol, but questions of equal access to the ballot box and discussion of the use or prohibition of other substances are still burning issues. We have volunteers serving in our armed forces, and we are not sending millions of men to the conflicts in western Asia, but the reality of war and the cost of that war still concern us today.

Yes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. We have a social crisis today in which taxation, regulation, and abandonment of traditional institutions remain symptomatic of our problems. I haven’t had time to read the rest of the booklet, but the cover intrigues me. Here are the concluding words on the cover:

“As an aid to these ends, this study syllabus has been prepared as the cooperative product of a number of liberal thinkers.

“Copies may be secured at 15 cents each, eight for one dollar, or $12 per hundred, from Hornell Hart, 807 Neave Bldg., Cincinnati.”

If you should try to contact Mr. Hart, please let me know if you receive a reply. J.

Fifteen years later

I took part in two services this morning at two different churches. Neither preacher mentioned the terrorist attacks of 9-11 (so far as I can remember), but both spoke of the attacks during the prayers, and one of them had a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks.

Americans over eighty years old remember where they were when they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Americans over sixty years old remember hearing about the assassination of President Kennedy. Americans over forty years old remember the stretch of weeks during which John Lennon was killed, Anwar Sadat was killed, and attempts were made upon President Reagan and Pope John Paul II that seriously injured both men. Americans over twenty years old remember the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington (and the attempted attack that ended in Pennsylvania), but to college freshman that bit of history is probably a vague memory if they remember it at all.

It seems that each generation has a defining tragedy, an attack of such violence that its impact lingers in memory. Until Christ returns in glory, he warned us, there will be wars and rumors of wars. History is less a countdown to the Last Day than it is a continuing reminder that the world is polluted by sin, stained by evil, and subject to God’s righteous judgment. On the Last Day the earth will shake, and every earthquake of our lifetimes reminds us of the Last Day. Every storm, every flood, and every disastrous fire reminds us of God’s judgment upon a sinful world. Still, the end is yet to come.

Nature in revolt against humanity seems only fair, given the damage we regularly inflict upon God’s creation. Human violence against one another is devastating in a different way. War is one of the most vivid metaphors we have to describe the fight between God and evil; or rather, the revolt of evil against God. When nations engage of wars of conquest against their neighbors, or when nations are embroiled in wars of revolution, the violence and bloodshed and death—as well as the hatred that justifies such violence—presents an image of the war that began when Satan deceived the woman, and she and her husband ate the forbidden fruit. Although the decisive battle of this war was fought as Jesus was hanging on the cross, the culmination of this war will occur when Jesus returns in glory to claim his Kingdom.

Revelation 16:16 refers to a battlefield called Armageddon. This word has taken on several meanings in western culture. It literally means “the heights of Megiddo.” The city of Megiddo was on a plain in northern Israel; in ancient times, several significant battles were fought on that plain. As a geographical feature, the heights of Megiddo do not exist. I believe that Armageddon refers to the entire war between God and evil, from the first day of sin to the Last Day, the Day of the Lord. Evil forces gather sinners into their rebellion—all the nations of the world are involved. Yet Jesus wins without an arrow being shot, without a spear being thrown, without a sword being drawn, without a shot being fired, and without a bomb being dropped. His victory was announced from the cross when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Ever since that weekend, the people faithful to Jesus have been carrying news of this victory to all the nations of the world, as Jesus said we would do.

We need to remember acts of war, both as lessons from history and as pictures of what is yet to come. Commemorations of Pearl Harbor, or of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, serve both purposes. May our memories of the past and our witnessing of present violence prepare us for the victory already won but yet to be seen in its fullness. And, to those who fear war and terrorism and violence, may we remember to share the good news of this victory. J.

 

Movies helpful to history students

As a history teacher, I often mention movies in the classroom to help the students gain some perspective on events and experiences that might be foreign to them. I’ve found that we cannot discuss the Greek and Persian wars without the movie 300 entering the conversation. To explain the events before and after that battle in light of what they think they know from the movie is beneficial. Once I led a before-class discussion of which war movies were truest to life. Since many of my students have military backgrounds, their perspective of war movies is probably more useful than that of the general population. Recently I recommended 1776 as a way to learn the issues and personalities surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Although Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest did not sporadically burst into song in Philadelphia that summer, the movie script successfully reproduces the conversations that happened during that key historic event.

In the coming week, I will be mentioning three more movies to the students. When we are at this part of the book, I frequently want to watch all three movies, even though generally I don’t have enough time for even one of them. Besides, I’ve already seen each of them enough times that I probably could speak much of the dialogue along with the characters on the screen.

Evita (1996) tells the story of Eva Peron, wife of the caudillo Juan Peron. She was part of his message to Argentina that he supported the common people and their goals. (After all, he married one of them.) The movie comes from a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, first performed on Broadway in 1979. (The soundtrack album was recorded and released in 1976.) As is the case with 1776, Evita depicts the principle characters singing rather than talking. In fact, there are very few spoken words in the entire movie. Casting Madonna in the title role was extremely controversial in the 1990s, but it worked. While the movie condenses history and combines events, it reflects the emotions of the time and place in a way that a classroom lecture and discussion cannot replicate. The movie runs two hours and 15 minutes.

Gandhi (1982) won many awards for its biographical portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi, known in India as the Mahatma. Like Evita, it condenses history, combines some events, and skips others entirely. Unlike Evita, the film Gandhi is not a musical. The key events of Gandhi’s life and career are shown within the proper historical and geographical setting. Again, a sense of the flavor of India during the first half of the twentieth century cannot be reproduced in the classroom. The movie runs three hours and 11 minutes.

The Last Emperor (1987) shows Chinese history during the first half of the twentieth century from the point of view of the final Qing emperor, who was only a boy when the rise of the Republic threw him out of power. Later, he naively cooperated with Japanese officials in an attempt to regain some of his lost power. He then is captured by Communist forces, who retrain him to be like everyone else in China. Once again, the film gives context to the historic events, dramatically depicting the way real people dealt with the changes that were happening in China during those decades. The movie runs two hours and 43 minutes.

An odd similarity among these movies is that all of them begin at the end of the life of the title characters (in the case of Evita and Gandhi, with their funerals) and then treat their lives and histories as flashbacks. This allows the moviemakers to make dramatic jumps in time between two events, omitting the portions of history that are less relevant or interesting for the script and the audience.

These three movies are vastly superior to the large number of movies that use history only as inspiration for the story the moviemakers want to tell. Most movies of historical fiction (and even some that pretend to be documentaries) consist of more fiction than history. This phenomenon is not new—Shakespeare’s historical plays were more imagination and propaganda than they were historical truth. (This may be as close as Oliver Stone will come to being compared to Shakespeare.) When I can point to a few helpful movies, though, it may assist at least one student to gain more appreciation of history than can be imparted in the classroom. J.

On science and faith

I am a fan of science and of scientists. I enjoy learning about science, and I enjoy the things that are accomplished in the world because of science. I admire scientists—especially those scientists who are humble enough to admit that science cannot answer every question or tell us everything we need to know about ourselves and the world around us.

Science can measure the measurable, but science cannot describe the things that are not measurable. No one can bring God into the laboratory for dissection or capture the human spirit in a test tube. Science cannot disprove the existence of a spiritual world, no matter how many people claim that science has done exactly that.

Science can measure the world as it is today. With those measurements, science can project forward or backward to describe the world as it will be in the future or describe the world as it was in the past. The caveat to these predictions and these theories about the past is contained in the words “all things remaining equal.” Science treats what it studies as a closed system; if a power outside the system interacts with the system, scientific projections of the past or the future are likely to be wrong.

I can take a radar gun to the highway and measure the speed of the cars and trucks traveling down the road. Knowing how fast a car is going at this moment does not tell me where that car was an hour ago or where that car will be an hour from now. A scientific projection based on the car’s current location, direction, and speed is more likely to be wrong than to be right, because the car is being operated by a driver.

The light from a galaxy a million light years away reaches the earth tonight. Does that prove that the universe is more than a million years old, or could the God who created that galaxy also create the rays of light that stream from there to here? Radioactive decay of certain atoms gives clear readings about the time that has passed since a living creature died. Can we be sure that radiation in the environment has been consistent through the past, or is it possible that environmental radiation was less in the past, causing living creatures to ingest less radioactive material than has been assumed? It takes a hundred thousand years for a coral reef to reach its current size, based on the measurable growth of coral. Could a different environment in the past have caused reefs to grow faster in earlier times?

My family once had a guided tour of a cave in Missouri. The tour guide told us more than once how long it takes stalactites and stalagmites and columns to form in a cave. The tour route had metal rails to keep tourists on the path. Those rails had stalactites. Another person in the group asked when the rails had been installed. I forget the answer, but by the statistics used by the tour guide, the stalactites on the rails should have been much smaller. “Those statistics are just an average,” the tour guide explained. “There are actually quite a few variables.” There are always quite a few variables.

History is both a social science and a liberal art. Archeology is a branch of history that is particularly scientific. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, archeologists said that they had found much evidence verifying historic accounts in the Bible. Now, many people claim that archeology has disproved much of the history reported in the Bible. It seems as if even the science of archeology depends upon the bias of the researcher for its results. Dating events by looking at the remains of cities and other structures is a challenge, although accepted results are becoming increasingly precise. At the same time, the history of Egypt and southwestern Asia is still dominated by records Greek historians developed about the Egyptian pharaohs and dynasties. These records were found in Egyptian temples by the Greeks, but they are no longer available. Some archeological evidence indicates that the Greek records are flawed. For example, the Greeks treated two late dynasties as successive, but those two dynasties are now known to have co-existed in Upper and Lower Egypt. This information casts doubt upon many of the dates that have been considered reliable in the study of ancient history in that part of the world.

Many religious groups have tried to compromise the Bible and science by adopting a version of the Big Bang theory in which God says “Let there be light” to begin the universe billions of years ago. At the same time, Stephen Hawking has proposed a process that omits the Big Bang from history, saying that universes can come into being instantly as a singularity. Hawking is not a Christian, and he would not approve of the way I use his theory, but I find it conceivable that the universe came into being six to ten thousand years ago as a singularity. God created Adam and Eve as adults (complete with useless navels), not as infants born of non-human creatures. God placed them in a garden with mature plants, not just seeds and soil. No doubt the trees had rings, even though they had not existed six days earlier. God did not create a mature world to trick future scientists; he created a mature world to be home to humanity from the beginning.

Of course I could be wrong. The universe might be twenty billion years old and the Earth 4.5 billion years old. Adam and Eve and the garden might be a parable to teach about goodness and evil. Arguments about science and history distract people from talking about the things that really matter. Sin and evil exist. Sinners cannot rescue themselves from evil. Sinners require a Savior. Jesus Christ entered this world to be the needed Savior. He died and rose again to defeat evil and to claim his people. When we focus on these basic truths, it does not matter what we believe about the age of the universe. J.

 

Genesis

People who know me describe me as intelligent and educated, even scholarly (among other things). Some of them are surprised to learn that I regard the biblical book of Genesis as historically reliable and accurate. They have been told again and again that the accounts of that book have been discredited by science and archeology. They don’t understand why I will not wave a white flag of surrender whenever they confront me with what “studies have shown.”

In the near future, I will write a second post to comment upon scientific studies. Before writing that, I want first to address my reasons for regarding Genesis as a good source of information about the past. My reasoning is not the circular argument that Genesis is in the Bible and the Bible says it is from God and true, so Genesis must be true. My confidence in the Bible comes from my faith in Jesus Christ. I do not worship the Bible as such, but I follow the example of Jesus in trusting what the Bible says.

Of course Jesus is best known through the Bible, so I might not have escaped yet the accusation of circular reasoning. However “studies have shown” that the New Testament documents were created by the first and second generation of Christians, reflecting information that came from eyewitnesses of Jesus. The four gospels were delivered as oral tradition before they were written—the similarities of outline and content among Matthew, Mark, and Luke testify to this oral tradition. The source of that tradition was a group of witnesses identified as apostles, men specifically chosen by Jesus to carry his message to the world. Gross inaccuracies in the account of Jesus would have been corrected or removed from the gospels. Without demanding belief in inerrancy of Scripture or addressing every apparent discrepancy or contradiction among the gospels, one can accept their general description of the attitudes and opinions of Jesus to be reliable for historians.

Among those attitudes and opinions of Jesus are respect for the accuracy and reliability of the Hebrew Bible (called Old Testament by Christians). Jesus frequently quoted from the Torah (known also as the books of Moses), and he treated the historical information they contain as true. Because I trust Jesus, I imitate his respect for the Hebrew Bible, and I use my intelligence to comprehend the message of those books rather than to fight against their message.

Perhaps on Judgment Day Jesus will tell me and other Christians that the book of Genesis was always meant to be treated as parable and metaphor. Perhaps he will reveal that Adam and Eve were not historic figures, that there was no Garden of Eden, no world-wide flood, and no Tower of Babel. I will not be sorry at that time to learn that what I believed about those stories was false. In fact, I will delight to relearn history and science from the Master. Meanwhile, I risk trusting that they are true, not because I don’t want to use my intelligence, but because I don’t want to lose my relationship with Jesus.

Other people, who cannot accept the accounts in Genesis because of their trust in scientists and historians, use their lack of confidence in Genesis to support their rejection of the entire message of the Bible. Because they cannot believe that the world was created in six days, or that a talking snake met Eve in Eden, they say that the entire Bible is nothing but fairy tales and that God is an imaginary being. Being wrong about how long the world has existed does not matter. Being wrong about God does matter. One of the strengths of science as a discipline is the ability of scientists to keep exploring new ideas, to admit that some ideas are wrong and others are better. One of the strengths of Christian faith is the ability of Christians to remain anchored in unchanging truth even while every scholarly finding is questioned and changed.

I have high respect for scientists, historians, and archeologists. I have high respect for their findings and discoveries. I do not have respect for people who try to use those findings and discoveries as weapons against people of faith. With unintended irony, they mock people of faith who aver that scientists and historians may be wrong, while genuine scientists and historians are always open-minded toward the possibility that they may be wrong. The air of superiority worn by those who trust science to disprove faith will be overturned when they meet God face to face. Sadly, that Day it will be too late for them to change their minds. J.

 

Arthur, King of Britain

The legends of King Arthur have extended through the history of the English language. Each generation, it seems, owns Arthur and his story; each generation, it appears, rewrites the story to suit its own challenges and values.

More than likely, Arthur did exist. If so, he was a Celtic warlord at the time that the Romans were withdrawing their troops from Britain. Arthur probably was trained by the Romans in military matters and in Roman law. Quite likely Arthur was Christian. His fame rested, at first, on his leadership of the Celts against the German tribes of Saxons and Angles who were crossing from mainland Europe to replace the Roman rule in Britain. Arthur seems to have won several victories before dying in battle; his legend was remembered, not only by the Celts who withdrew from southeastern Britain, but also among the German tribes who established the country called England.

Arthur is remembered as a Christian king. Many of the adventures of his knights took place when Arthur’s court met to observe Christian holidays (such as Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost). Some of the adventures, though, seem to be retellings of myths and legends from the pre-Christian religions of Britain. The presence of monstrous giants, fierce dragons, and the magician Merlin (sometimes identified as “son of the devil”) bears witness to Celtic beliefs. Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by enemies of the kingdom and must be rescued by Arthur. As the Norsemen (or Vikings) raided English and Celtic settlements, memories of King Arthur and his successes multiplied. Other local heroes became identified with Arthur’s court, and dreams of the Round Table encouraged people during this time of turmoil.

In the middle of the eleventh century, two kingdoms that had arisen from Viking settlements sought to claim England. The English army defeated the Danes, only to lose to the Normans, who came from Normandy, land previously granted to them by the king of France. The new rulers of England introduced a culture that was part Viking and part French, but which was able to incorporate the story of Arthur into its vision of England. A little less than a century after the victory of the Normans, Geoffrey of Monmouth included accounts of King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Already Arthur was said to be the son of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, then wife to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwell. Uther dies when Arthur is fifteen, and Arthur is made king. During the following years Arthur consolidates his kingdom, first on the island of Britain, next extending to Ireland and Iceland, then to Norway, and eventually to Rome itself. Arthur defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius Hiberius, but before he returns to England his throne is seized by Mordred, a kinsman of Arthur who had been placed in control of the English government during Arthur’s absence. A bloody battle ensues in which Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken to the island Avalon, according to Geoffrey, in the year 542, and the kingdom passes into other hands.

Around the same time that Geoffrey was writing his military history of Arthur, in France Chretien de Troyes was blending the romances of chivalry into the accounts of Arthur’s rule. Chretien is the first to mention the name Camelot; he is the first to tell of Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and the first to describe the quest for the Holy Grail. Stories of the Fisher King, somehow related to Joseph of Arimathea, were told earlier, but they were not linked to King Arthur until Chretien wrote his work. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, as the Italian Renaissance was already well under way, Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, probably the most famous compilation of the stories related to King Arthur and the knights of Camelot.

England’s importance grew tremendously during the rule of the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanovers (as well as the time of the Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell). An empire was established, and an industrial revolution began in England that changed the entire world. By the nineteenth century, readers of the English-speaking world favored a return to the romantic stories of earlier times. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a series of poems about Arthur and his knights. Howard Pyle wrote children’s books to tell the story of Arthur and Camelot. (Pyle’s version is the first that I read as a child. Pyle is also known for his accounts of Robin Hood and for his stories about pirates, both strong influences on literature and storytelling to the present.) Well before Monty Python produced a comic film version of the story of King Arthur, Mark Twain explored the comic possibilities of Camelot in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s Arthur and Merlin are not the noble heroes of Malory and Tennyson. They are bumbling, superstitious, and easily awed by the scientific and technological knowledge of the time-traveling American.

The twentieth century is known for two World Wars, and in that time of gloom the legend of Arthur was rewritten again. T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King, highlighting the tragedy and foolishness of war. His book was the basis for Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which was an award-winning Broadway musical, later made into a movie. In fact, Arthur has been portrayed in more than a hundred movies since 1909, including a Disney cartoon and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Perhaps the best movie version of Arthur’s story is Excalibur (1981) starring Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson, and directed by John Boorman.

In the past fifty years, many fantasy writers have labored to rewrite the story of King Arthur. Some have sought to place him in the proper time, at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Others have tried to recreate the late Middle Ages’ romance and chivalry of Malory’s tale. Still others have tried to expand upon the magic of Merlin, Morgan, and the Lady of the Lake, putting Arthur and his companions in a world far removed from the contemporary world of science and technology.

In most versions of the story, Arthur does not die, but when he is badly wounded he is taken by barge to the mystical island called Avalon. There he continues to heal, but he will return to support his kingdom at its time of greatest need. Thanks to Geoffrey, Malory, Tennyson, White, and others, Arthur and his legend has frequently returned, supporting England and the entire world in those times when we need a legend to sustain us. J.