Genesis as History


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.

“I Am Not Your Negro”


Author James Baldwin undertook a project in 1979, to tell about the lives of three of his friends who had been assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. He had only written thirty pages of notes by the time he died eight years later of stomach cancer.

Raoul Peck, Haitian film-maker put together the movie I Am Not Your Negro using Baldwin’s own words (sometimes from TV talk shows, sometimes read by Samuel L. Jackson) to express what he felt about race in America. The result is powerful.

Early in the movie there is footage shot in the South in the early sixties of hate-filled white people carrying signs. One says, Miscegnation is Communism. Another says it is the Antichrist. It’s dolefully ironic that miscegnation (sexual relations between black and white) was initiated by white slaveowners who then blamed black men for wanting to rape white women, thus turning the dynamic inside-out. Black men are still blamed for their sexuality, though, just as women are blamed for tempting Adam to eat the apple. A good myth is hard to give up.

Also early in the film is a black girl walking alone to go to a white high school surrounded by whites carrying signs saying they don’t want to go to school with blacks. They’re jeering and spiting at her too. Baldwin speaks, saying that he saw this footage in France, where he was then living, and besides being enraged was filled with shame, adding, “One of us should have been there with her. ”

It’s hardly surprising he died of cancer. Cancer and heart disease are in part caused by stress, and he had the stress of being both black and gay. A recent article says it’s a shame the movie didn’t address his being gay too, because Baldwin did in his writing. The three of his novels I remember best spoke of homosexuality as well as race. Actually, I don’t think Giovanni’s Room talked about race. So sexuality was very important to Baldwin too. He comments in this movie that black men aren’t allowed to show their sexuality (that may be less true now), and that movie star John Wayne, who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, had permission, because of his whiteness, not to grow up. It was okay for him to kill Indians. He didn’t have to learn to negotiate with them as equals.

Baldwin met Medgar Evers early in the 1960s and traveled with him as Evers attempted to gather evidence about voting suppression. The sixties weren’t far advanced when he was murdered himself. Baldwin says he was extremely frightened traveling through Mississippi, but also felt he needed to do that as a witness, and that he needed to travel widely as a witness. Eventually he also traveled to Georgia and Alabama where some of the famous Civil Rights protests had been. More footage of police beating defenseless men and women.

Baldwin says he watched Malcolm X and Martin Luther King come from very different positions to eventually drift into almost exactly the same position. Footage is shown of Malcolm X criticizing King for not wanting blacks to fight back when abused by whites. However understandable his feeling, it’s also obvious that taking on whites in a race war in which they would be vastly outnumbered and outgunned would be a self-defeating strategy. King replies to Malcolm X by saying that he sees love as being a powerful force rather than a cowardly surrender. Did Malcolm X come to appreciate that position before he died? Baldwin says he was in London with a friend taking a day off when he learned of Malcolm X’s assassination.

Baldwin came home from France in the later sixties. He said he missed very little about America, but missed his brother, sister, their children, and his mother. He was visiting them in 1968 when his sister was called away from the table. When she returned she said nothing, but he felt something was wrong. Then she said, “Martin Luther King was just killed. Reporters are coming to get your reaction.”

He attended the funeral, and said he tried not to cry, felt that many others were trying not to cry too, and for the same reason: they didn’t know if they could stop.

He felt he had to visit the widows and children of those leaders, also not easy. Perhaps especially because none of the three lived to be as old as forty.

I was vaguely aware of the strife of the sixties, but didn’t really feel it. I had problems of my own taking up my attention. But the sixties shaped my political views. In the 1950s we had had a comic book portraying Rosa Parks taking a white person’s seat in the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refusing to get up. That’s where I first heard of Dr. King.

In 1963 I was with my grandmother while she watched coverage of the March on Washington, and got to see in real time Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Hairs stood up on the back of my neck. What the Civil Rights movement was protesting was so obviously unfair that I didn’t see any alternative to being a liberal. It seemed that all conservatives were racists, a term that has since been used too lightly for too many frivolous reasons. No one in the Civil Rights movement has had the kind of gravitas Dr, King had, which is a shame. He and the other two were murdered because they held up a mirror to show us all what we were, causing panic fear. People comfortable with segregation felt their world was coming apart, and had no answer but violence. After King was killed, many others felt THEIR world was coming apart too. If my heart was in the right place in feeling sympathy for the movement (which is debatable), I did nothing about it, to my shame.

Baldwin didn’t only report his feelings about the movement and the death of his friends (as well as many other more anonymous people), but looked at the larger picture of America, its racism and other forms of injustice. He saw white America being as entangled and imprisoned by racism as black America, and striking out in violent resentment of it. Black Americans never wanted to come here, but neither did whites, he says. Using blacks as slaves made them prisoners too.

The fact is that the American way of life hasn’t made many people happy. Satiated, in some cases, but not happy. That many of us have secure lives that most people in the world can’t even imagine, and yet are fearful of people unlike ourselves is ironic, if not paradoxical. Look at some of the things we lead the world in: numbers of prisoners, people killed by police, consumption of illegal (and legal) drugs. Those things don’t indicate a happy culture. More people have a higher standard of living than any time previous in the world, but they aren’t happy, and their standard of living comes at the price of devastation of other peoples and the waste of natural resources. They, who are WE, prefer fantasy to reality, because experiencing the reality of what WE are complicit in would mean we must experience overpowering guilt and responsibility. Nobody wants that. So we’ll have to pay in another way.

The climactic scene of the movie is footage from the Dick Cavett show. A new guest enters and says he disagrees with what he’s heard Baldwin say, and asks if there isn’t any other way for him to connect than through race? Surely he must feel more connection with a white author than with an illiterate black.

Baldwin answers that the man is invoking an idealistic vision that he has seen no evidence of. Is he to trust not only himself, but his relatives and children to an idea which he’s never seen manifest in real life? The other seems to have nothing to say–or maybe it’s just that I can’t imagine him saying anything to refute Baldwin.

The idea that racism was once a problem, but is no longer, is popular in some circles. When people complain about it, or even try to talk about it, they’re said to be “race-baiting”. I don’t suppose people with this view are even insincere–that they’re aware of. One such person friended me on Facebook during the past year or so, complimenting me on the posts I’d written on this blog, and trying to persuade me of his views. He was nice to me, never being rude when I stated my own views (which he probably saw as liberal cliches), and even defending me from some of his friends. But I couldn’t agree that racism was no longer a problem, nor could I support his candidate for president. I’m not sure if this movie would mean much to him. I’d like to think it could open his eyes, but that might be too much to expect. There are quite a few people who seem pretty sincere in their disagreement with what I believe. And I certainly am not always right.

The movie Raoul Peck has made isn’t perfect. As one writer complained in a recent article, he didn’t address Baldwin’s homosexuality, even though Baldwin wasn’t shy about that. If he had, the movie would probably have been longer, and even more powerful. As the writer pointed out, Baldwin was criminalized in two ways: not only as a black man, but as a gay man. He was doubly an outsider in ways most whites don’t experience, unless they really want to. Most of us want to be accepted, so don’t confront the injustices we see. That’s what is known as white privilege, a term some people are impatient with. They don’t see themselves as privileged. They also don’t think to ask how a black person might see them.

The movie quickly surveys several movies with themes of black vs white. One is the movie in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are handcuffed together after escaping from prison. At the end of the movie they’ve managed to get rid of the cuffs and are running to catch a train and ride in the box car. Poitier climbs onto the train, Curtis clutches at his hand, but can’t hold on, and falls down the hill. Poitier jumps back off the train. This, Baldwin says, is to reassure a white audience that black people still love them, in spite of the way whites have abused blacks. But, says Baldwin, the black audience had a completely different reaction: they said, “Fool, get back on the train!”

Do we want to know how the people we live with, who had a major role in building this country, but got very little out of it, actually feel, or do we prefer a fantasy? The answer to that question may go a long way to determining our future, as Baldwin says.



A program shown on PBS tells of corpses found in Anglo-Saxon villages in England of about a thousand years ago which had been mutilated. Not many of them, but a few, had had their heads removed after death, and placed between their legs. Why? Apparently because they were suspected of vampirism.

The idea of vampires is a pretty old one, and seems to have been common to much of Europe. It died out in England, but not in other places, especially in eastern Europe. The documentary speaks to a peasant in Rumania who had helped unearth a recent corpse which had red around its mouth and a swollen belly, which he and the others had taken as evidence that the person was a vampire. They had opened the grave because a young woman said her uncle, who had recently died, had visited her and sucked her blood. The peasant said he had removed the corpse’s heart and burned it at the village crossroads, after which the young woman got better.

The idea of vampires is identified with Rumania, partly because of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, which is partly set in Transylvania; and partly because a fifteenth century monarch of Rumania, Vlad Tepes, was called Dracula, and is thought to have been a (or the) model for the literary character. Vlad Tepes was certainly not a pleasant man, having been notable for impaling people he didn’t like. That is, seating them on a wooden stake, pushing it up through their rectums into their bodies, then letting gravity slowly kill them. Probably rulers in that time, and maybe particularly in that place, had to be severe in order to survive, but Tepes seems to have been extreme even there and then.

The documentary says that Stoker based his novel on actual folk beliefs about vampires (it was unclear to me whether he added some powers to his character that weren’t part of common beliefs or not), but changed the image of the vampire from a problem found in rural Europe to a well-dressed cosmopolitan aristocrat. That’s the image that got popularized in plays and movies over the last hundred years. The question is, was there ever anything to the vampire myth, or was it simply misunderstanding?

Scientists and historians interviewed in the documentary argue that the idea of the vampire came from ignorance. Red around a corpse’s mouth and a swollen belly are the work of bacteria after death. The interviewees believe that the concept of vampires was used to explain illnesses the peasants were vulnerable to.

One historian notes that in the country away from the fireside the world is absolutely dark at night, except for a candle or torch that could be carried. It would be different in larger towns and cities, but villagers had to fear warriors sneaking up on them as well as storms and illnesses.

Some of the illnesses were pretty fearsome too, like leprosy, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague. We have to remember that nobody at that time had much idea where disease came from, and peasants would be more ignorant than most. If people began having horrible symptoms and dying, there was almost nothing anyone could do. How could they defend themselves against something they utterly failed to understand? In that situation, blaming illness on the dead was as reasonable as anything else. As one historian points out, the suspects usually were people most hadn’t liked when they were alive. The idea seems to have been common in much of the world, too. People living in the Himalayas seem occasionally to have been concerned about vampires as well. In Bulgaria and Italy too.

The hypothesis seems pretty plausible, but I wonder if there may anyway have been something to the old view. Vampires seem to resonate with a lot of people. Whether or not they literally drank blood, it doesn’t seem too strange to think of people who might drain in some manner people of vital energies, perhaps by doing something as simple as constantly demanding attention.

While vampirism as explanation for illness is probable enough, the documentarians didn’t look into the illness of the young woman in Rumania. Was it bacterial or viral? Or psychosomatic? Knowing that would go some distance toward deciding if the traditional idea of vampirism is totally invalid. It may seem totally stupid, but some of our ancient ancestors knew things we no longer know, as shown by some of the monuments we have no idea how to build. It’s not impossible that they knew more than we do in cases like this too.


The Secret Book of Kings


This novel revisits the early history of ancient Israel at the beginning of the monarchy. Its central point is the power of the story. Yochi Brandes, an Israeli Biblical scholar, makes it very plausible that many of the stories in the Old Testament showing King David in a favorable light are propaganda, making it seem that claiming him as an ancestor might be similar to claiming Hitler or Stalin. David merely acted on a smaller stage.

Some years ago I read a history of ancient Israel in which the author expressed some wonderment that David was so venerated when his career wasn’t much different from many opportunists.

In this novel the story of his rise is told by Michal, daughter of King Saul, his first wife, who was advantageously placed to see what happened. She tells how she falls in love with David as a teenager, though he is less enthusiastic about her. She travels with him to entertain the troops, then goes home and tries to get him to go with her. He refuses. He has other things to do.

The other things include organizing an army of his own, led by his relatives, and marrying other women. One of my acquaintances thought David had a sexual relationship with Jonathan, and remarked that David behaved better during that period than he did later. The fact that David defected to the Philistines (as told in the Old Testament) and helped organize the invasion of Israel that killed Saul, Jonathan, and all of Jonathan’s brothers, suggests that whatever relationship he had with Jonathan was a totally cynical one on his part.

After the invasion he arranges his own coronation, then takes Michal and the remainder of her relatives to live with him in his palace with his other wives. Michal had previously married a man who had waited a long time for her. David separates them, and arranges for her husband to be killed. Later, their son and the remainder of her young relatives are also killed. David also conquers neighboring countries and commits what would now be called war crimes there.

All this is told to the narrator of the novel, who turns out to be the great-grandson of King Saul, and the grandson of MIchal, now known as the Mad Princess because she spends every night lighting many candles all over the palace and screaming. This behavior is a cover for her: if she can be dismissed as insane, she’s not perceived as a threat. I suspect this part is invention.

The narrator has been brought up by foster parents in the tribal territory of Ephraim, one of the twelve tribes of Israel. His mother lives in seclusion in a retreat for lepers which she never leaves, and where she always covers her face. She doesn’t have leprosy, but is in danger from the royal family. Shelomoam, the narrator, becomes disenchanted with his foster family, largely because he senses something wrong with the story he’s been told about his background. He leaves his home village to go to Jerusalem to join the army.

On his way there he meets Hadad, an Edomite, who trains him for the army. Edom is one of the neighboring countries conquered by David, and Hadad is determined to get it back. He believes Shelomoam is the key, and we find out why when Shelomoam meets Michal. His father was her son, Nebat, who was killed along with most of her other relatives.

Shelomoam is tested by the authorities and sent to Ephraim to be the head tax collector. David’s policies have preferred his tribe, Judah, to the rest of the tribes, who now (during the reign of Solomon) suffer from high taxes and forced labor, as Solomon carries out grandiose building projects and collects foreign women for his harem. Michal has told Shelomoam how Bathsheba manipulated her way into David’s bed, how (with the aid of her grandfather) David managed to get away with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband with a slap on the wrist, and how Bathsheba managed Solomon’s accession to the throne, in spite of David’s older sons.

Shelomoam is in a dangerous position: he must produce taxes and laborers, or be punished, but if he does, he’ll incur the hatred of the people of Ephraim. He manages this crisis through communication. He persuades the wealthy of the area that by taxing them higher than the poor people they will manage to avoid ruining the area. The rich will eventually be ruined too, and forced labor will ensure a shortage of labor and ruin of the laborers’ families. He becomes very popular. He even manages to prevent punishment when demands to raise taxes and send even more laborers come. He sends fewer laborers than demanded, and tells the authorities that he has to reduce taxes to prevent ruin. The other tribes follow his lead, and this provokes a plot to kill him, so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.

His flight to Egypt is true, according to the Old Testament; I’m not certain we know about the narrator’s early life. When he returns to Ephraim a couple of years later he has changed his name to Jereboam, signifying that he will increase the population of Israel, and manages the separation between Israel and Judah. The novel ends on an optimistic note.

But things in the long-term didn’t work out as well for Israel as Judah. A book about the Old Testament tells us that Israel, though it was richer, more willing to innovate, and more integrated into the life of the region (Judah was a poor and isolated country), was also more volatile. David’s line was preserved in the kings who ruled until the sixth century BCE, when Babylon conquered Judah and deported many of its ablest people. Israel had been conquered by Assyria about a century before, and unlike Judah, was never able to put its kingdom together again. In that time there had been multiple dynasties. The Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament were descendants of the northern kingdom, and detested by the Jews, who lived in Judah (called Judea by the time the Romans conquered the Middle East), which was why the parable of the Good Samaritan is found in the Bible. The Jews had been more conservative, and some were fanatical, at least about the presence of the Romans.

Interestingly, a book I read about twenty years ago, said there were still Samaritans surviving in the Middle East, but only a few hundred. The account said they had their own Torah (not including equivalents of the later books of the Old Testament, apparently), which was somewhat different than the Jewish version which has come down to us.

It seems that the northern kingdom, which seems superficially more attractive than the southern one, was less stable, though the southern kingdom also suffered a great deal. Assyria probably deported a lot of Israelites, and the suspicion is that many of them assimilated. Jews would later assimilate too, but not often (this was not always their doing).

The only obvious moral is to beware of propaganda. It seems that even David’s most famous feat wasn’t really his: Goliath seems to have been killed by someone else. This novel doesn’t credit Saul’s supposed attempts to kill David; it says Saul would have succeeded if he’d tried. Nor does it credit Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. All these incidents were propaganda created by the victor to justify the treason that gained him the monarchy. Propaganda is no less dangerous today, and no easier to decode. It may be even more ubiquitous than in the past: America took the lead in creating the advertisement industry which influenced Adolph Hitler in particular. There may be other morals here too: perhaps that suffering and faith mean more in the long run than wealth. That’s not a particularly welcome message.

Pioneer Girl


Many people are familiar with the title, Little House on the Prairie, because it was a successful TV show about forty years ago. But before that it was the title of a book by Laura Ingalls Wilder, part of a series of novels about her childhood. It was a series my mother discovered not long after they were published in the 1930s and early 1940s, and she read them to us when we were children.

The action in the novels takes place in the 1870s, beginning with some of Wilder’s early memories. She was born in 1867 to a couple, Charles Ingalls and Caroline Quiner Ingalls, whose parents had grown up in New York state and New England respectively, who had moved to Wisconsin, where Charles and Caroline met and married.

The wave of white settlers had spilled across the country west of the Mississippi about 25-30 years earlier, at first to the amusement, then to the alarm of the Indians. This led to wars which eventually ended in about  the 1890s. Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t see any of that violence, but did see Indians.

Pioneer Girl begins with the family in what is now Kansas, living illegally on an Indian reservation, where the Indians weren’t doing too well. It was shortly after the Civil War, and payments to the Indians had been suspended during it, so they were in danger of starvation. Wilder’s mother and father gave the Indians anything they asked for out of fear for what they might do. They didn’t stay in Kansas long, traveling back to Wisconsin to live near family before heading west again.

That’s one of the places Pioneer Girl differs from the eventual series of novels: it doesn’t tell about the family’s time in Kansas, perhaps because Wilder didn’t want to admit that her father was knowingly doing something illegal, the book’s editor suggests. In later novels Wilder changes the timeline and some of the characters from how they’re portrayed in the earlier book. She also doesn’t tell some of the anecdotes of Pioneer Girl because the novels are aimed at children. Alcoholic and sexual escapades are omitted.

From Wisconsin they head west into southwestern Minnesota, where they run into a plague of grasshoppers that lasts several years. From there they head west into what is now North Dakota, where Laura’s father gets work with a railroad and also stakes a claim on land nearby what became the town of DeSmet, where he could farm. This is where Wilder spent her adolescent years before getting married.

The editor of Pioneer Girl comments that Wilder looked up to her father more than her mother, and her father was a hard-working and resourceful man. I doubt that her mother worked any less hard, though, and must also have been resourceful to be a pioneer wife.

One incident I remember being impressed with from the books is Laura’s father building them a house using pegs which he whittled to hold the structure together, since he didn’t have any nails. He not only farmed, but worked for the railroad, was on the board overseeing a church, served as a judge, and was a carpenter. He also liked to play his violin, and had a fairly extensive repertoire.

Laura knew they had to work as a team, and not only helped her mother, but contributed to the family through outside jobs sewing and teaching in nearby schools, beginning when she was fourteen or fifteen. She contributed money to buy an organ her sister Mary, who had attended a school for the blind, could play after she returned home. It’s uncertain what caused Mary’s blindness, though doctors now believe it may have been meningitis, encephalitis, or some combination. She probably couldn’t have gotten much better care in a big city in that day before antibiotics, and x-rays, but it points up how many problems there were even when civilization wasn’t extremely far away.

In the earlier books the family seems isolated, though that wasn’t entirely true. Wilder depicted them that way to emphasize how much they had to depend on themselves, but there were also other people to whom they could go for help. This was particularly acute during the winter of 1880-1881, the Hard or Long Winter.

Snow fell early and often that fall, so much of it that the town was eventually cut off, even though the railroad ran through it. The snow was too deep, and the weather too cold for the railroad to operate. Much livestock froze to death, and people were reduced to eating the seeds saved to grow crops the next season. Almanzo Wilder undertook to find a farmer a dozen or so miles away who still had some grain, a very risky business since he could have gotten caught in a blizzard and lost. But he managed to get back to the town with the grain.

Fuel was another problem. The weather was bitterly cold with high winds, and there was little wood on the prairie. Laura’s father began twisting hay together to make a sort of stick which still burned fast, but helps keep people warm.

With blizzards coming every two to three days people had to be careful about going outside. The storms were so powerful people often couldn’t see, and could get lost between house and barn, as well as in town. Teachers watched for blizzards and sent the children home as soon as they see them coming.

Her later novels depict their interactions with people in the town. They had an extensive social life, with Fourth of July celebrations, social occasions organized by the church, and going riding with Almanzo Wilder, whom she eventually married, first in a sleigh, then a buggy. He has strong fast horses whom he couldn’t trust to stay still in a crowd, so the two of them took long rides of 40-60 miles together in the summer. Such long rides were unsafe in the winter, when it was possible to freeze to death.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s period may have seen the most dramatic changes ever in American life. She lived to be about 90, dying in 1957. Her first glimpse of high technology was a train, as a little girl. But she saw the advent of cars, movies, and airplanes, as well as the ascendance of America in the world. She may even have been aware of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. When writing the series that made her famous, she insisted to her daughter (herself an author and editor) that her material had to be treated in its historical context. It was a very specific time, and very unlike much of the twentieth century.

She clearly had good memories of her childhood and adolescence, but didn’t publish any more novels after her marriage to Almanzo. She wrote a further novel, The First Four Years, but didn’t publish it, perhaps because of many hardships in that period which would have detracted from the optimism of the rest of the series. She and Almanzo had a son who died as a young child, they owed money they were unable to repay until selling their farm and moving to Missouri, and Almanzo had bad complications from diphtheria, leaving him temporarily paralyzed, though his paralysis stopped after they moved to Florida. The couple descended into debt and never became financially stable until Wilder’s novels became popular.

But, as the editor of Pioneer Girl says, her novels became classics of children’s literature. She ranks Wilder with Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, and E.B. White as children’s authors. Our family certainly enjoyed reading them, and so did enough others to generate a TV show which, as you might imagine, wasn’t very true to the books.

It’s hard for us to imagine, I think, just what life was like as pioneers on the edge of the western advance of white settlers. The editor of Pioneer Girl makes clear that civilization wasn’t too far away: railroads were built (and Wilder’s father worked for one), and brought important supplies to the settlers, including seeds to make a crop after the Hard Winter. Had they been totally isolated, they might have been in danger of starvation. They were not, but didn’t have the technology (in particular) we take for granted now. We see Wilder and her world at the very beginning of the transition from the 19th century way of life to that of the 20th century. We never really learn what Wilder thought of all those changes, but the picture painted by the editor suggests that she took the changes for granted.

Her life overlapped mine. There have been large changes since I was born, but nothing as immense as happened in Wilder’s lifetime. She reminds us where our country came from.



Revolution From Above


The first thing that announced the 1980s to me was the air traffic controllers strike. They wanted more pay, fewer hours, and better working conditions. President Reagan denied they had a right to strike, and after giving them 48 hours to return to work, fired the vast majority. The head of the agency in charge of the controllers at the time was later quoted as saying that the firing served as an example to many employers, and probably had a large effect on the economic recovery that followed. Many employers disliked unions, and made use of the example.
The next thing I recall was hearing about leveraged buyouts. These were one company buying another, draining all its assets, and leaving its workers without employment, the sort of thing I would imagine a vampire doing. The excuse was to make companies leaner, and this became the rationale for another fashion, which followed: downsizing. In this case, a CEO would fire many employees, often middle management persons who knew how the company did business. Those replacing them (I gather they usually got replaced) had the virtue of not commanding the high salaries of previous employees, but they often didn’t know what they were doing.
Industries had begun to be relocated in the 1960s and 70s. Steel mills vanished from Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio (the general area where I grew up). Rubber plants vanished from Akron. In the case of the steel mills, cities benefited by being less polluted, but they didn’t benefit economically. By the 1990s industries were moving (or so it appeared) en masse to Mexico, China, and southeast Asia. Some blame these phenomena on greed, and that no doubt had something to do with it, but it seems to me that resentment was also part of the story. Where did the resentment come from?
Others are alienated too, but they are usually unsuccessful people with little money and many frustrations. From the time the industial revolution began to dominate the country corporate employers began to treat employees as opponents rather than collaborators. It was apparent in the 19th century and early 20th, when strikers were often met with brute force because they asked for better pay and working conditions. It wasn’t unusual for employers to respond by maiming and killing the strikers, or trying to replace them with people even more desperate, who would sometimes work for even less. Why they responded in such a primal way is unclear to me. In many cases employers had been made very rich by the people working for them (I remember seeing a large number of mansions in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which were probably built with such profits), but they deeply resented anyone questioning how they ran their businesses. Employers may not have been as overtly aggressive in the most recent thirty or so years, but they have seemed uninterested in paying employees a cent more than they could help, and very interested in driving down pay. If you measure the success of these strategies by the number of homeless children, it’s VERY successful. This means ordinary Americans are a potential market which corporations aren’t interested in serving. It seems like the picture of the future described by Karl Marx.
One somewhat plausible explanation was that the large industries knew they had only a limited time to extract profits before ecological catastrophe hit. That’s not impossible, but I’m not sure I believe the industrialists were that rational. Some of their behavior may have been planned coldly, but some seems visceral and ideologically driven.
A Facebook post says, You can tell who is unhappy with their lives because they like to make everyone else miserable too. Applying this proposition to such financial behavior suggests that wealth doesn’t make people happy, though many people devoutly believe it does. Government by bribery has been going on a long time, but the imbalance of wealth makes it even more ubiquitous, and wealthy people reveal themselves as resenting that poor people should get any government benefits at all, like Medicare or Social Security. Considering that wealthy people and corporations (who are now defined as people, by act of the Supreme Court) arrange for themselves to get subsidies, tax breaks, and to craft regulations to suit themselves, their feeling that poor people shouldn’t get ANYTHING from the government seems to come down to their being mean and ideological. Is it impossible for people and organizations who are financially secure to have any generosity at all? Or is their behavior the result of some overwhelming fear?
It’s the kind of behavior that inspired Marx and Engels to begin Communism. Granted that Communism didn’t turn out to be a great idea, but the defensiveness with which capitalists responded to strikes, unions, and eventually to the version of socialism/Communism that took over in Russia and elsewhere, speaks of some bad consciences, as well as the desire to not only make people suffer, but to utterly control their lives. It seems like a sort of sadism flowing down the hierarchies to the lower bureaucrats, managers, and police.
And what is the source of sadism but fear? Is it not striking out at what one fears before one can be attacked? That speaks again of a bad conscience, as does the ideological narrative of people being poor because they’re lazy. It also speaks of proving one has power by exercising it: mistreating people because one can, and hoping the power thus displayed will protect one from any number of undefined catastrophes.
It’s also like the policy that Joseph Stalin referred to as revolution from above. He used that phrase to justify the forced collectivization of farmers which led to a mass starvation that killed millions. The profit from the forced collectivization was used to invest in modern weapons, which came in handy later, when Russia was invaded by the Germans. In the case of the United States, weapons have been heavily invested in since World War II. In our case, the investment has been into tax breaks.
There are things it’s rational to fear. Poor or ethnic people might reject the scapegoat status they’ve been assigned and mount some kind of attack on the status quo. That becomes increasingly likely the longer the gulf between rich and poor increases. That ecological collapse might arrive in spite of all denial. That financial collapse might lead to social collapse. Wars for resources. Drought and famine. Monumental pollution of water and air. All these are rational to fear, and irrational not to try to prevent.
But politics frequently appeals to the irrational. Rather than try to repair or prevent problems, we deny them and block efforts to deal with them. It’s more important to divide and maintain control, which is why various political, economic, and religious groups demonize each other. Whether calculated that way or not, the wars set off by 9/11 have aroused fear of Muslims and increased willingness to commit crimes against them, turning moderate Muslims against Americans.
This may benefit some people, but not ordinary Americans. Ordinary Americans are the ones that have to be soldiers, and become homeless after their service because their war traumas don’t allow them to fit back into society without extensive help, for which funds are not forthcoming. They’re also the ones who lose jobs that get exported, the jobs that get cut to make companies more “competitive”. They were the ones looking for jobs in their forties and fifties who weren’t getting hired because they were “overqualified”. They’re now the people who have to live with their parents because they can’t afford to get places of their own, who have college degrees but can’t find jobs in their specialty areas and can’t repay their college loans.
In other words, they’re not the ones that government serves.
No wonder they’re angry, often to the point of being irrational. I think they often misinterpret who is to blame for their problems, and what the solution is, but I certainly can’t blame them for their anger. Maybe part of their situation is a culture that encourages wrong behavior, but when heroin use becomes common I see it as not merely irresponsible or depravity, but a sign of despair. Is despair unjustified? We believe that having enough money is necessary, and then see opportunity contract. Some can see entrepenurial opportunity, but many don’t have the talent or resources to make use of opportunity if they recognized it. Are they to be jettisoned for being less than perfect?
That’s what predators practice. Unregulated capitalism is the predator’s playground. Actually, what is practiced in this country, and much of the rest of the world, is regulated, but regulated in favor of the wealthy, who already have wealth in their favor. They shouldn’t have to have the legal system biased in their favor too.
This election cycle may turn out to be a referendum on the way things are organized, but little will change unless a lot of people are willing to work very hard for a very long time to change them. A biased financial system is far from being our only problem, though it’s a serious one. Our whole society, in my opinion, is organized on a wrong basis, and needs to be changed. Unless we too change, any changes will most likely be superficial. I wish I were more optimistic.

When Jesus Became God


Bart D. Ehrman, in When Jesus Became God, writes about what we can historically know about Jesus, which isn’t much. That’s because no contemporary records of Jesus have come down to us, and because the books of the New Testament are inconsistent with history that has come down, and with each other.
King Herod didn’t try to kill all the boys two years old and younger in Judea, for instance. There’s a tradition that Jesus and his family visited Egypt that may actually be valid (it goes back pretty far), but if so, that’s not why.
Shepherds or wise men may have visited him after he was born, but not both. According to two Gospels, not either. There does seem to be a tradition in Iran that two (not three) wise men (Magians) visited.
He may have been descended from King David through Joseph (which shouldn’t count if God literally made Mary pregnant), but the two geneologies given in two separate Gospels don’t agree.
He may have been literate, and have studied the Torah, but maybe he just listened to it frequently, and had great insight. The disciples almost certainly were not literate, since they were mostly manual laborers from Galilee, a rural area from which no one important had ever come. All the books of the New Testament were written in Greek, which the disciples may not even have known, and written (beginning with Paul’s epistles) at least two decades after Jesus’s death. The Gospels were written between 35 and 65 years after. This means that the writers had almost certainly never met (or seen) Jesus, and had probably not even met anyone who had. Several oral traditions provided the framework for what was eventually written down, and the above inconsistencies weren’t the only ones. We can pretty much guarantee that things were added. The question is, what in the Gospels actually happened?
Most likely Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist did happen. John forgave him his sins, and is the superior figure in that story, which is not how later Christians would have preferred to portray him.
Evidently, he was crucified in Jerusalem after getting in trouble with the authorities. That’s also something Christians wouldn’t have boasted about. The rest of the story about his trial and crucifixion don’t add up, though.
In one Gospel he says exactly two words to Pontius Pilate, in another they have an extended dialogue. The former is more likely than the latter, especially since the latter has Pilate saying Jesus was an innocent man. Unlike Jesus, records of Pilate have survived, and he was not a sympathetic character. Ehrman thinks that Judas betrayed Jesus by telling the Romans he called himself King of the Jews. That would be enough to get him crucified for being a potential revolutionary.
The stories of the crucifixion are inconsistent too. In one, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” In another, he tells the thief crucified beside him that they’ll meet in paradise.
The rest of the story in the Gospels is mostly unlikely too. People usually took longer than a few hours to die, and they were rarely removed from the cross after death. Romans had no concern over Jewish sensibilities about the Passover or the Sabbath, and even if he had been removed from the cross, the story of the tomb is most unlikely too. Jesus isn’t portrayed as being rich, and his family was about 120 miles away. His disciples (also not rich) had run away fearing the Romans would get them too (except for Judas).
So why did the Christian religion begin?
Ehrman thinks it’s because of the resurrection. Not because Jesus died and came back, which wasn’t unheard of. He had brought Lazarus back to life, after all, and various magicians claimed to be able to do the same. But Peter and Mary Magdalene at least (and later, Paul) had had visions of him that convinced them he was somehow still alive. The other stories about him allowing Thomas to put his finger in his wounds and eating a piece of fish seem to be later additions: there was controversy about whether resurrection would be physical or spiritual.
On the other hand, other scholars say that few seem to have believed in the resurrection immediately afterwards. Possibly that too was added to the legend.
This was important because Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, who seems to have really believed that the world as he and the disciples knew it would soon be coming to an end, when it would be replaced by the Kingdom of God, over which he would reign, and his disciples over the Twelve Tribes. By the time the Gospels were written, it must have been apparent this hadn’t happened, and probably wouldn’t. Rome had crushed the rebellion of 66-70 CE. That had changed the world, but hadn’t inaugurated God’s Kingdom as far as anyone could see. Unless the picture people had of the Kingdom of God was entirely erroneous. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say, “…the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”
Just why Jesus’s resurrection made not only his disciples, but lots of other people believe he was not only the Messiah, but the Son of God, and eventually equal to God, is unclear. The visions at least some people had of him after his death must have been vivid. Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Paul must have been utterly convinced that what they perceived was real, and there may have been more people than just they. Once they were convinced, the question was, where was Jesus? He was alive after death, but not among them. The next idea was that he had been taken up into heaven.
This wasn’t unprecedented either, since it had happened to Enoch and Elijah. The next question was, what was his role in heaven? Had he been a mortal who had been “adopted” by God? Was he a preexisting angel? The idea that he was the Son of God had some precedent too. Both kings and angels could be Sons of God.
An obsessive process had begun. Christians, even those outside Judaism, as converted by Paul, accepted there was only one God. But if Jesus was God’s Son in the sense of being another version of God, how could there be only one? Did Jesus, while on earth, pray to himself? If he was literally God, how could he fit into a single human body? It would have been simpler to just declare Christianity a polytheism, but instead, Christianity obsessively searched for the correct definition of what Jesus and God were, respectively, and declared each other heretics for any definition that was incorrect. This was bad enough when Christianity was illegal. It became worse when Christianity first became legal under Constantine, then the state religion under Theodosius some eighty years later.
That happened in the fourth century CE, a tumultuous time for Christians. Still trying to get that definition right, the dispute was now whether God and Jesus were of the same or similar substances, a question which seems utterly trivial today, but didn’t then. Eventually Jesus was declared to be of the same substance, to such effect that, as a Jewish writer noted, hardly anyone talks about God the Father anymore, only about Jesus. The disaster of power politics took Christianity over and changed it from its beginning as a religion of love to a religion of power that persecuted its perceived enemies, different only theologically from the Romans who had actually crucified Jesus. Pagan religion was actually usually tolerant, as most forms of religion around the Mediterranean and Middle East had similarities, so that it was easy to see one god as a version of another under a different name. The Jews were disliked because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor as a god, but consented to praying for him. Christians also refused Emperor worship and went so far as to call the gods of the Empire demons. This didn’t make them popular.
The pagans were persecuted more systematically by Christians than Christians had been persecuted by pagans. Jews began to be persecuted by Christians too, only in small ways to begin with, but with pogroms to follow later, and the Holocaust less than a hundred years ago. Anti-Semitism is seen quite early in the New Testament gospels. Jews are blamed first for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, although he hadn’t done any of the things (like driving the Romans out of Judea and becoming a great king) the Messiah was expected to do. They were also blamed for killing Jesus (though it was actually the Romans) and thus rejecting their own God. They were also blamed for misunderstanding their own religion, which Christians claimed to correctly understand. People will go to absurd lengths to find scapegoats, and Jews became the foremost scapegoats of the next 2,000 years. Heretics and witches weren’t treated much better.
Not all Christians wanted to play the power game. Saint Francis is an example of someone who followed the actual teachings of Jesus, but he was not part of official Christianity.
As interesting as the evolutionary process of Christianity was, there’s another question worth pondering: is there any validity to it? People unwilling to grant any credence to the supernatural will say there is not. This seems almost as narrow-minded as the Church insisting on its own definitions of what is right and wrong, and severely punishing anyone who disagrees. Religious fanaticism seems to have entered history with Christianity, but not all Christians have been fanatics. There have always been believers who were extremely good people from our accounts of them.
In this age in which science has in some ways replaced religion, one of the problems with the supernatural is that it’s difficult to experiment with, and also difficult to replicate any experiments. Historians like Ehrman can’t tell us whether what the religion teaches is valid. They can only tell us what we can know about the time and background of the New Testament. They also can’t tell us why Jesus’s disciples and the followers they converted decided he had been the Son of God. As Ehrman points out, that concept wasn’t entirely unknown to Judaism, and it was a lot more familiar to the pagans whom Paul and others began converting. Ehrman may be right in thinking it was the resurrection, but some of the phenomena described in Acts, as when a large crowd was able to hear what the disciples said in their own languages, or the experience of the love feasts that early Christians celebrated, must have been unusual and powerful. Perhaps people then were more open to describing their experiences as divine or supernatural before the correct theology had been worked out. But if there had been no experience, how did people become converted? Early Christians must have become different enough to make an impression on the people they converted. Part of it may have been that Christians performed good works that pagans usually did not, but it seems unlikely that would be enough. If the supernatural had nothing to do with it, how is Christianity’s popularity (and at a time when Christians could look forward to the possibility of persecution) to be explained?
In recent times science has been identified by many with materialism, often defined as study only of what can be perceived. Science is also identified with use of technology. Neither is of any help in trying to study the supernatural. One thing that might be is the study of the alteration of consciousness, and the significance of the states arrived at. In fact, George Gurdjieff, said of the Sufis that they had taken practices from many different places and accepted those they could verify while rejecting those they could not. That sounds a lot like science to me.
Western science may not accept the supernatural, but there’s little reason to believe that Western science has successfully analyzed all of reality. Ancient religions have described phenomena that sound very much like phenomena Western science has discovered. If that’s true, how did they perceive them?
I find Ehrman’s book fascinating not because it sheds light on any supernatural truths, but because it tells us what we can know historically about a phenomenon we really don’t understand. It’s easy to simply deny any validity to religion, but more challenging to ask how it could be true if it were. That’s a question that doesn’t require one to believe or disbelieve in Jesus, but which may prove enlightening for anyone willing to ask and seek an answer.