Genesis as History

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I watched a movie last night expressing what I guess are current views of Creationism, some of which I can buy, some of which I can’t.Of course Creationism sees the Bible as being accurate historically. I don’t entirely disagree, but think there are contradictions.

The movie began with a rationale for believing in the Great Flood, something I tend to agree about. The geologist appearing in the movie calls the Grand Canyon convincing evidence for the Flood, seeing the geologic layers revealed in it as having been laid down suddenly and catastrophically, rather than gradually over millions of years, as mainstream science contends. I think that’s possible, whether it was a local flood or worldwide. There’s a less known site in this country, in eastern Oregon, which some scientists believe was similarly eroded by huge volumes of water moving very fast. They think that one was caused by an asteroid striking the ice pack then covering most of what is now Canada, vaporizing or melting large amounts of ice, and also releasing water from a large lake, just as the geologist believes about the Grand Canyon.

The viewpoint the movie cleverly takes is that of catastrophism, which was anathema in mainstream science for quite awhile.

There’s other possible evidence for a Great Flood too: that the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Caspian Sea in Asia are saltier than they ought to be for their apparent ages. There are also two salt lakes in the Middle East at high altitudes, Lakes Van and Urmia. Lake Titicaca in South America is also at high altitude and is a salt lake, but it seems to have once been a seaport that got lifted up when the Andes mountains were formed.

So far I can agree with much of what the movie says. But part of its quarrel with the conventional dating of the Grand Canyon is, according to the geologist, that the various dating methods for ancient stone and fossils do not agree. That’s certainly a problem, but not enough of one to justify the belief that the world is only 6,000 or so years old. That figure has been a dogma among certain Christians since the 18th century, which makes it questionable in itself.

One of the examples used to justify that figure is a site in which there are fossils in many layers, and the geologist says that each layer shows its own ecosystem. He attributes this to the Great Flood washing over the world more than once. Were this true, it seems to me the fossils would be jumbled up together, as sites reported by other sources state.

The Creationists seem to be on firmer ground questioning natural selection as the evolutionary mechanism. Not that it doesn’t work in producing variations within species, but the idea that all life on earth has a common ancestor is hard to believe. For this to happen, one would have to expect new species being produced from other species. There are variants of many species (cats and dogs are two examples), but those are different breeds, not different species. We haven’t seen new species being created since human beings began to write about 5,000 years ago.

For another thing, it would take a very long time for life to begin from bacteria and differentiate into vegetables, marine life, amphibians, and mammals. Creationists have a point when they question if enough time could have passed. There’s a point in the fossil record (I think after the dinosaurs went extinct) that an explosion of new species occurred. How did that happen? If the asteroid strike which made the dinosaurs extinct was that destructive it’s hard to see how much of any kind of life could have survived, especially many species with no obvious ancestors.

But part of the reason for the question about time scales involved seems to be the Creationist desire to prove Genesis literal. Thus they talk about the process of creation described in Genesis as only taking literally six days. Why is that so important?

One question the movie didn’t address was that of Cain: if his parents were the first humans, as we who read the English translation of the Bible are supposed to believe, how did Cain, after leaving his family, find someone to marry? Let alone found a city? The sensible solution to this is that in the original Hebrew the Adam and the Eve were treated as generic human beings instead of individuals. The story of the Fall would refer to individuals at a later time.

But the movie sees dinosaurs as being part of the punishment of humans for the Flood, and representing the corruption and violence of the world after the Fall of Man. Then it has the dinosaurs dying in the flood, which must have taken place (according the their version of the age of the earth) not much more than 4500 years ago, or about 2500 BC. Again, the questioning of timelines by the movie’s makers doesn’t really provide evidence to suggest that the earth isn’t much older than that. It does suggest that tests to determine the ages of rocks, artifacts, fossils, etc, don’t agree with each other, which does call science’s view into question, but doesn’t give positive evidence.

Another question the movie doesn’t address is one that started people thinking about evolution in the first place: how did life survive the Great Flood in the Americas (where are there are flood legends, just as in Asia) when the animals couldn’t have possibly been taken to or picked up by Noah’s ark? And the thing that really began to make scientists think was the variation in animals and plants around the world. The New World had examples of both that the Old World didn’t, and species in isolated places (like solitary islands) developed in unique ways. The New World also DIDN’T have species found in the Old World, like horses and elephants, fossils of which were found later. But different species and variants within species were an example of evolution at work in isolation from other parts of the world, though not an example of new species being derived from old. It also doesn’t explain the evolution of humans from apes, though we do seem to be closely related to them.

I don’t object to Creationists questioning the findings of science if they do so in a rational way. Scientists can be biased and make mistakes too. What I DO object to is trying to rationalize taking the book of Genesis literally, as well as other Christian dogma, unless there’s very strong evidence for it.

Called Out of Darkness

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I haven’t read many of Anne Rice’s novels, not being particularly interested in vampires, but her memoir, Called Out of Darkness, looked interesting when I saw it in the library. It’s about her childhood experience of religion, her retreat from it, and her eventual return.

Her childhood was in a time not so long ago, from my perspective, since it overlapped with mine. It was a time when almost everyone was religious (at least nominally Christian) and there was no air conditioning, which we didn’t miss, not having experienced it. One may have little to do with the other, but it was a more natural time in that respect, and Americans in general were more innocent.

Rice’s life has been unusual in part because she wanted to be a writer without having facility in reading books. So her experience of religion (Catholicism in her case) was direct. She loved the churches and services she and her family attended. She never remembered NOT wanting to go to mass, and she also loved the priests and nuns she came in contact with. Two of her aunts were nuns, and she was impressed with the selfless way in which they lived. She also liked the nuns who taught her in school (though she adds the nuns were tougher on the boys than the girls). Of course this was well before the sexual molestation scandal hit the Catholic church, and probably few even imagined such a thing in those days.

It felt to her like a gigantic family because growing up in New Orleans everyone she knew was Catholic, and all the holidays were religious. She loved them all. She thought, at one point, of becoming a nun, but was dissuaded by her father. In retrospect she says that this was just as well, since she didn’t have the temperament for it.

Temperament, among other things, became problematic for her as she entered her teens. She was annoyed at being treated like a child, since she never felt like one (at least since being a very young child), and being a girl, and a Catholic girl at that, was also a problem.

That’s because, in the 1940s and 50s going steady was a mortal sin, as were hugging and kissing. This was one of the things pushing her away from the church.

Another thing, not specifically Catholic, was the attitude of some about her going to college. One person tried to persuade her it would be better for her to major in something other than journalism, since she would be unlikely to find a job in that field. Another tried to persuade her that highly intelligent people were unhappy. College, she says, is when she put that kind of thinking behind her.

A basic problem was that the Catholic church had come out against the modern world in the previous century, and that was agonizing for Rice, because she desperately wanted knowledge, just as she desperately wanted sex. The only acceptable way to have sex was to be married and have children. There WAS no acceptable way to the kind of knowledge she wanted when so many of the authors she wanted to explore were atheists, or at least not Catholic. She had decided she needed to attend college and work at becoming someone, and that meant a Protestant college, as there was no Catholic university she could possibly afford.

And when she met other students just as hungry for knowledge as she, she also discovered they were good people without being Catholic. They weren’t careless sinners, but thought about what they wanted to do and how to behave ethically.

Talking to a young priest about her doubts, he told her, after he found out about her old-fashioned Catholic upbringing, that she would never be happy outside the church. Though he meant well, she was no longer a Catholic when she left the room, she says.

There had been a mixture of art and mind in the church she had attended as a child. Now that was being taken away from her. So she stopped being Catholic.

“I could not separate my personal relationship with God, and with Jesus Christ, from my relationship with the church.” This, she says, was the real tragedy: she felt she had to stop believing in God in order to leave the church. She left it for 38 years.

It made sense at the time. The church lied to her. God wouldn’t damn people for kissing, masturbating, or thinking. If he did, he couldn’t be called loving, and loving is the way Rice perceived God and Jesus as a child. She tells how a very old nun beamed at her once and said it was wonderful because her soul was pure. That was the manifestation of God and Jesus she wanted to believe. But that’s not what the church told teenagers and young adults.

She adds that from childhood on the church gave people lies to tell outsiders. For instance, that the Inquisition hadn’t executed anyone–that was done by secular society. But secular society and the Catholic church hadn’t been separate in those times. This, she says, was a first-rate Catholic lie.

She could have gone to an opposite extreme and become promiscuous, for instance. Instead, she married the young man she had known for several years, and stayed with him for the rest of his life (he died fifteen years ago). And theirs was, for the most part, a gender equal relationship at a time when that was probably unusual. She wanted to become something, and he thought she should. They argued as equals about the things that passionately interested them, sometimes scandalizing their friends.

These passions, contrary to what one might think, had little to do with the new movements that had begun in the 1950s and were becoming public in the sixties. Rice says she had missed the civil rights movement because she’d moved to California before it became front page news. She was looking at the past, so didn’t pay attention to Vietnam, and didn’t realize that assumptions about race and gender were being overturned. Feminism she thinks was a movement too painful for her to participate in at the time. She was trying to understand the past, especially the World Wars, and was unaware of the present. She admired secular humanism as she found it in San Francisco and Berkeley, and still does today, she says–much against the fashion in some sectors of society.

Two things then happened to change her life significantly. Her daughter became sick and died before turning six. This led her to write her first novel, Interview with a Vampire, which not only established her as a writer, but also as a person separate from her husband. Now, when people spoke to her it was because they wanted to talk to HER, not her husband.

The other was that they had another child, and decided they needed to stop drinking, which they did, thus avoiding the bad health, inability to work at high capacity, and possible early death that comes with alcoholism.

Then, as a wife and parent, she pursued her writing.

She wrote about people shut out of life for various reasons. Vampires are outsiders. So are witches. So are castrati. And since she didn’t write in the intellectually fashionable way, she attracted readers who sometimes never read anything else.

The arc of her writing was to lead her back to God, she says. She found this particularly in the historical research she did to create her novels, most especially in the survival of the Jews which, according to what she’d learned in school, shouldn’t have happened. She’d been drawn to a brilliant Jewish family she’d met (and had babysat for) in her early teens, and was heartbroken when they’d moved away. In her later life she had many Jewish friends, and was as impressed with their determination to do right as with the Catholics she’d grown up with.

Then, in 1988, she moved back to New Orleans with her family, and found that the huge Catholic family she had left there accepted them the way they were, quite against her expectation. When she was growing up Catholics were told to shun anyone who married outside the church, divorced, or did a number of other things the church disapproved of. But she wasn’t judged for those things or for having written about witches and vampires. Suddenly the church felt inclusive, that ordinary Catholics were no longer willing to automatically exclude minorities who transgressed on some dogma, no matter what the church hierarchy might say.

In the late 80s and 90s Rice’s faith in atheism was beginning to crumble, she says. She traveled to religious sites and collected religious relics. The natural world and artistic world both spoke to her of the existence of God. Not only that, but twentieth century American was still obsessed with Jesus, and not just the fanatics. Jesus Christ Superstar is a frivolous example, but there were also many books written, and a whole new genre of popular Christian music became commercially viable. Probably some of this was fanatically dogmatic, but not all of it.

Rice says of her own novels that they rebelled against modernist literature in telling stories in old-fashioned ways, but not against the modernism the Catholic church opposed. Her characters were isolated individuals who didn’t live according to dogma, maybe especially not according to sexual dogma. Her novels, she says, are committed to sexual freedom and gender equality–all the things that had been going on in the 60s and 70s which the Church had generally opposed, and which she had generally been oblivious to. Overall, she says, they’re the story of her return to faith from atheism. Atheism hadn’t exactly been wrong, in the context of a church that rejected so much of the modern world, and hence of life, but ultimately it was unsatisfactory for her.

The world was telling her of God’s existence and love, and eventually she surrendered to it, realizing that she didn’t have to understand everything. God did and does. She only had to play her part.

At this point, she says, came a miracle: she didn’t know ANYTHING about the contemporary church. If she had, she might never have felt able to return. She didn’t know about the church’s rejection of ordination of women (she had once wanted to become a priest), or of the polarization between Right and Left within the church, nor about the pedophilia scandal that had only recently broken. All she knew was that the Catholic church of her childhood still existed, and that this was her way to return to God.

Not, she says, that she could consider herself an actual Christian during this time. She didn’t live an unChristian life, but it wasn’t especially Christian either. The essence of it was a struggle how to proceed. The Christian life means to entirely substitute God’s will for your own, and that’s where many of us hesitate. Rice had numerous employees; would God demand a sacrifice so she could no longer employ them? Many Christians have suffered persecution, often physical persecution as well as emotional. Would that be demanded?

Then she realized that, as a writer, it was her role to write what God wanted her to write. So that’s what she began doing. As she did, she discovered that the only version of the life of Jesus that resonated with her was the orthodox version: he was the Son of God, and performed all the miracles recorded in the New Testament. She says she read many of the books that question the New Testament, and found the scholarship slipshod, one place where I would probably disagree with her, though my knowledge of the the question is far from complete.

For Rice, the Incarnation is what is important, so she dubs herself a Christmas Christian instead of a Passion Christian. The Passion and Atonement leave her cold compared to the idea of God being born a child of a mortal woman. A woman, moreover, who had become pregnant outside of wedlock, giving rise to obvious rumors. While the Passion may be as or more important, it’s not what moves her.

She also began reading the Gospels, the rest of the Bible, and Biblical scholars as well. What she found, she says, is that she couldn’t see the Gospels as anything but written by first-person witnesses. She couldn’t see the books as collaborative or edited, something else I would probably disagree about. She finds tremendous depth in those books, as the Church has always insisted, but cannot force anyone to believe.

The other thing she realized was that she was called on to love everyone. Literally. It’s easy to condemn Christians and everyone else for not doing this, or not doing it well enough. A temptation, she says, we always have to resist.

She includes a prayer written by St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace,                                      Where there is hatred, let me sow Love.                                             Where there is injury, pardon,                                                                Where there is doubt, faith,                                                                   Where there is despair, hope,                                                                Where there is darkness, light,                                                             And where there is sadness, joy.                                                          O Divine Master, grant that I may                                                          Not so much seek to be consoled as to console;                               To be understood as to understand;                                                   To be loved as to love;                                                                            For it is in giving that we receive–                                                        It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;                                              And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

Rice tells us of finding a statue of Christ on the cross reaching down to embrace St. Francis. She found it three times: once in an antique shop, once in a church in Brazil, and then in the church she was attending as this memoir was written.

I think it’s significant that the present Pope is Francis, and that no other Pope before him had taken that name. I think that was because the Church went through a time of great hatred, some of which began about the time of St. Francis, with the crusade against the Albigensians. That crusade was the birth of the Inquisition, model for future police states, which led to the persecution of the conversos (the Jews who had converted to Christianity in Spain, but continued to practice Jewish worship), the great wars against the Protestants, the persecution of the witches, and finally to the ideals embodied in the US Constitution about the separation of church and state to avoid religious wars. Maybe the appearance of the present Pope and his choice of the name Francis is significant. Maybe it means that a majority of Catholics are tired of the hatred that made them embattled in many places and separated religion from science.

And if that’s true for a majority of Catholics, maybe it’s true for a majority of people in general: Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist, despite the horrors still perpetrated in the world, too often by religious people.

Rice notes the religious obsessions with sexuality and gender, and wonders if these could not be made secular as much (but not all) of science has. Science tells us something of how the stars are made, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also see them as lights created by God to guide us. We can also, if we wish, see God in every human, every animal, and the whole natural world. That would be a more optimistic view of the universe than seeing the world as merely the story of random chemical reactions.

Unless, of course, God were to continue to be viewed through the lens of dogma and power. When God is only a tool of the powerful, organized religion loses its point. It has nothing to offer the rest of us, especially the poorest, most vulnerable, and most persecuted.

Anne Rice had, it seems, to leave her church and return to it to realize just how significant it was to her. Her path won’t be the same path as anyone else. But her story can serve as an inspiration, rather than a roadmap.

 

Lavondyss

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Lavondyss is a quest story by Robert Holdstock about an ancient forest in England bigger than it looks from the outside. A stream runs through it which becomes a river deep inside. Not only is the the forest larger in space, but in time as well, with spaces in it extending back as far as the Ice Age.

Tallis Keeton’s older brother, Harry, has disappeared into the forest, and his family mourns him. He says goodbye only to Tallis, then a young child, and seems to be in pain. She thinks the pain is in his chest, but doesn’t understand. She wants to rescue him, but doesn’t know how.

As she grows older she becomes obsessed with the forest, which seems to act on her; she sees human figures out of the corners of her eyes, stories come to her, she discovers the real names of fields and trees, and makes masks symbolizing various states of consciousness.

The first one she makes she calls “the Hollower”, after the opener of roads (holloways) that lead from the world of the living to the world of the dead, roads which heroes walked leading to worlds where the heroes sometimes became trapped–as Harry apparently had been. She makes more masks too.

A story comes to her about a king and queen with three sons. The youngest, Scathach, is exiled to a castle made of “stone which is not stone”, and is unable to return.She finds a tree she names Strong Against the Storm, which is a hollowing place where she can have visions, where a passage can open between worlds, and there she has a vision of Scathach grievously wounded on a battlefield. Carrion birds are coming for him, and she performs a childish sort of magic to keep them away.

Her parents don’t understand. They know she’s been distracted from the ordinary world, especially when she quits school, but don’t  understand what she’s trying to accomplish, and she rarely feels she can even try to explain. She does try sometimes, to her father, and he does try to understand.

She is only thirteen when she actually meets Scathach. Born in the wood, but with a father from the outside, a scientist who had been investigating and trying to understand the forest, and had eventually entered it and become the shaman of a primitive tribe, fathering two children, performing the rituals necessary for the tribe, and continuing his observations of the different peoples traveling up the river headed for Lavondyss, the heart of the great woods. Scathach speaks English and is able to explain some things to her, but urgently needs her help to return home deep in the forest. He needs her to hollow, to open a path so he can find his way home. Just when she has persuaded her father to help her Scathach persuades her to help him find his way in the forest, promising she can quickly return. She goes with him, hollows a way into the forest, but quickly becomes lost. For eight years.

Scathach’s father feels her coming. The creatures of the forest aren’t natural, though they live. They’re shaped by the powerful subconscious fantasies and problems of warriors and shamans, and the father, a shaman himself, sees things around him changing.

One of those things is the boy not really his son who was actually born from the forest and is about to change the tribe in which he lives by changing all their rituals. He is preparing for this by eating the marrow out of the bones of the tribe’s dead to get their memories and dreams. Eventually he will kill his father and eat his head, giving him even more access to powerful thoughts and dreams. He is a mythago, a sort of archetype created by the forest out of powerful images dreamed.

He tries to kill his father the shaman, and almost succeeds. Once the shaman has healed enough to travel Tallis and Scathach take him up the river as both seek Lavondyss. Scathach, as he is a warrior, must fight in the battle of Bavduin, a sort of apocalyptic battle in which hecatombs of men are killed. He hopes to find the friends he journeyed with and lost.

Tallis wants to enter Lavondyss so she can free Harry, and doesn’t know exactly how to do so. After Scathach and the shaman both leave her she enters a ruined castle she has found, one she had glimpsed before in previous hollowings. It is made of petrified wood–stone that is not stone. There time speeds up, a tree grows into her body and turns her into wood. Ages pass.

It is usually winter in the wood, but now she finds herself in extreme winter, and the family living near her are trapped in it. They didn’t realize the extremity of winter coming in time, and don’t have the food to go south, and barely have enough to survive where they are. The youngest son of the family is an artist. He finds Tallis and chisels her out of the tree, then plants her at the head of the grave of his grandmother, who has just died.

As he does so, his father comes behind him, kills him, and eats as much as he can, then runs away. The mother follows him, kills him, and returns. She and the two older boys eat the remains of the younger son to survive, then the middle son allows birds to peck his eyes out. This breaks the magic Tallis realizes she had made in trying to protect Harry. Harry is the middle son, but the loss of the son’s sight has also freed Harry. His spirit thanks Tallis and disappears, telling her he’ll soon see her again.

The wooden statue embodying her is burned, but not entirely, and from what is left she metamorphosizes eventually back into her previous body and leaves Lavondyss, realizing it is the place of events that resonated with humans and which became myths on which human behavior is founded (just as human survival is founded on ecology). Time is plastic there, as can be human, plant, and animal forms.

Returning to the tribe where she found the shaman, she finds the boy who has now killed the shaman and eaten him. She also finds Scathach, who has survived the Battle of Bavduin.

The next scene is of Tallis as an old woman still living in the forest and near death considering her life. She enjoyed her subsequent life with Scathach, though he died too soon, but still hasn’t found Harry.

Until she dozes and he comes to her. He helps her stand up and leads her to the edge of the forest where she sees her father. She has returned to the very moment she entered the forest. She hasn’t destroyed the family, and now can heal it. And though she still hasn’t found Harry, hope remains for him. And for the grandson she leaves behind in the forest, with directions for finding the old lodge where there are records of the shaman’s researches.

But just after that a scene from earlier in the novel repeats. Harry arrives at Tallis’s funeral and is grief-stricken. He cries out, as Tallis had heard him many years before, ” I’ve lost you. I’ve lost you. And now I’ve lost everything!”

From one of Tallis’s masks comes an answer in Tallis’s voice: “No, I’m here. I’ll come to you, Harry. Wait for me. Wait for me…”

In interviews Holdstock said he was deliberately working with myth in this book and others in its series. The progenitors of ancient stories are still more ancient, and the versions we know are often romanticized. Robin Hood isn’t mentioned in chronicles until 1377, but his story is probably much older, and may be related to that of King Arthur, whose story may go back as far as the Bronze Age.

Lavondyss is a sequel to Mythago Wood, in which the author set up the premise on which the stories are based, but the sequel is far superior. The premise is about the role myth plays in human life, in our subconscious minds (much larger and wiser than our individual consciousnesses). The story is both deeper and more complex, not only about questing, but about courage, determination, and loss. The end, which always makes me emotional, suggests that loss may not always be forever, and that healing is possible, in spite of loss.