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(Mis)reading other (ancient) cultures within our own

I‘ve written an essay of sorts below. It’s the type of thing that I think about quite a bit but have rarely posted about on this blog. As you may or may not know, I was, for quite a long time, pointed towards an academic career as a professor, and I still think in many ways about the types of patterns that I was conditioned to see in literary texts. I also spent a nice percentage of my literary career studying Bible as Literature and I studied the Bible extensively throughout my undergraduate and graduate career.

I saw this ridiculous photo that a friend passed along that set me off on this tangent. I tried to find it in my history logs, but I cannot. It was the photo of a school permission slip for a field trip to a historical museum on which a parent wrote (and I’m horribly paraphrasing here) that the earth was only a couple of thousand years old and he/she didn’t want to pay to send his/her child to be told a lie.

The ridiculousness of the statement resonated with me and has been rolling around my head for a few days. It also kept rolling up against something else: the widespread anti-Christian sentiments that are often lobbed in blanket fashion against all Christians because of a few Christians who are ill-informed being overly vocal. As I’m a Christian, a writer, and someone who strongly dislikes broad-stroked stereotypes—no matter where they come from or who they are aimed towards—I had to write it out.

If you’re disinterested in such discussions, you can stop reading now. Note that when I speak of modern Christianity here, I am largely speaking of American culture (and to a certain degree the larger whole of Western culture that has been shaped and formed into its current chaotic self by centuries of very un-Christian actions being taken under the name of Christianity). I originally titled the essay “Fundamental Christianity’s fundamental reading problems,” but I think that’s unfair, as the reading problem that I discuss in the essay is one that most modern readers suffer from, no matter their inclination. Most of the atheists I know, being conditioned within American culture their entire lives, are as deeply religious in their views as believers. I apologize if that statement or any of the below comes across as one of the broad stroked stereotypes I mention above. It’s not intended as such, but hypocrisy is somewhat unavoidable whenever anyone casts any sort of judgment on any other group, no matter how small the judgment.

An essay on fundamental reading problems.

Let me start off by noting that I am a Christian, I believe in Christ, and I believe in God. I was brought up Methodist and I’m married to a Catholic. I’m not actively practicing much in terms of my religion beyond very constant and regular prayer, which I believe in strongly.

Modern day Christianity is very much a religion of the book and while that could very much be its strength, it more often than not is its Achilles’ heel because very few people, believer or non-believer, read the Bible, and, perhaps more importantly, the vast majority of those who do read the Bible don’t know how to read it. They approach reading the words of the Bible with their modern eyes and with a very literal approach that anyone—should they stop to think about it—would realize is entirely the wrong approach to understanding.

People with an ounce of study in ancient cultures, Hebraic thought, biblical translation, philology, Koine Greek, and a dozen less specialized fields having to do with communication will be more likely to spot this. As I’ve studied a bit in all these areas and I’ve been writing and wrestling with words my entire life, I am keenly aware of the chasm between a message that was put to parchment thousands of years ago in another culture and another language and the modern American English-speaking culture that reads those words as if they were reading a textbook or a newspaper, mistakenly looking for instruction, information, and direction from a familiar voice.

Words are structures that we write in an attempt to communicate meaning. You know that when you have a conversation with your friend Jim that the words he says only convey part of the meaning that is being communicated in your conversation. You know Jim, you see his face, and you have a history of Jim in your head that tells you who he is, where he comes from, and how best for you to interpret the words he speaks to you. Many divorces begin with loved ones saying archetypal things like “I don’t think I know you anymore,” and the reason those are the words that are picked is because the communication has broken down, we stop listening to the living, breathing, and constantly changing person that we’ve chosen to spend our lives with, and instead listen to the version of the person who is sitting in our heads.

One of the reasons children leave home and there is a natural friction between parents and children is because parents often see the totality of their children’s lives and sometimes that totality blinds them to the current changing child, often at a time when that child is becoming an individual and an adult and no longer wanting to be defined and misunderstood within the same structure in which he/she has always been defined and understood by his/her parents.

When we first begin writing in school and we learn to write a letter, aside from the structures of writing and the grammar and the spelling, we are taught to understand tone. When I was teaching introductory college writing classes, I often told my students that text that isn’t carefully written leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding in the reading of that text. Why? Because there is no face to look at, there is no voice to be heard, and uncareful writing that lacks its own voice comes across most clearly in the voice of whatever moods currently possess the person reading it. If a poorly written email is sent to you on a day when you have a headache and are feeling somewhat glum, you are going to interpret that writing within that glumness and read it in the worst possible way. Likewise, if a very serious letter is written without any clear indications of its seriousness in terms of the tone constructed with the words, a person who is in an extremely giddy mood may dismiss it entirely, especially if he/she knows you as someone who doesn’t tend to be serious.

These are all too common miscommunications that occur constantly, every single day, in the modern world.

Now, imagine being a tribal nomad wandering the wilderness and the desert well over 3000 years ago. There is no electricity. There is no toilet. There is no clear running water through a water faucet, let alone bottled water. There is no television. There are not even any printed books yet. There is no paper. You have to go to the trouble to smash thick leaves together between rocks, let them dry together, then roll them up and you write on them with some sort of ink that you’ve created, basically scratching the characters into the papyrus.

You’re not a hunter. You’re not a man sitting at a typewriter or a computer.

You’re a scribe.

Your whole life is about writing. You are paid to write things for people. Chiseled notices on the sides of rocks. Ink-scratched notes on rolled up pieces of parchment. You don’t speak English. English with its vast collection of words doesn’t even exist yet. You have a much smaller vocabulary and yet you are one of the most educated of your people (in terms of words at least) and know more words than anyone else. Many of your words have multiple meanings depending upon the context within which they are used and sometimes even their position within the sentence. You do not separate your words with spaces, but instead write them in one long string of characters. Why? Maybe so you don’t have to use up more of that paper you spent all that time making. Maybe because no one has thought of spaces yet. I, being a modern man, do not really know for sure. I’m guessing all of this about you.

Not only are you a scribe, but you’re a historian. You’re actually on the bleeding edge of technology because, for however long, your ancestors have simply passed stories down verbally from generation to generation. You’re now committing some of those stories to writing. You don’t know precisely how long these stories have been passed down, and you have no concept of thousands and millions of years because there are no records going back that far.

The oldest record is the long list of ancestors that is spoken out loud, not written down anywhere, from memory by the oldest man in your village. Perhaps part of the story is painted in pictures on a cave wall somewhere or on the side of a piece of pottery. None of it is written in text on paper yet. That’s what you’re doing. The oldest part of that record that you know of is your oldest remembered ancestor whose name has survived from the retelling of the long list of names of ancestors and his name was Adam and his wife was Eve and they are both remembered via a story that has been told and retold for generations and which you are now writing down.

Since these are the first ancestors in the long list of remembered people, they must be the first people as well, and that’s why after you write down the creation story that your tribe has been telling to one another from generation to generation that you decide to write down another version of the creation story with Adam and Eve, because it only makes sense that they would be at creation. Besides, your people are fond of a poetical technique called chiasmus that relies on inverted parallels in storytelling and since you’re a scribe you’re undoubtedly a poet too, so this only makes sense to you.

You have no concept of people spending lots of money to buy nice suits and nice dresses to go to a thing called a church once a week and sit listening to a man or woman speak at the front of a congregation and telling your children to sit still. You sing songs and praise your God around a campfire and pray often and constantly and are grateful that you have health and food and that your tribe needs you. When it is dry you pray for rain. When it is cold you pray for warmth. You may hold temple in a tent. Several hundred years from now your descendants, no longer wandering the in exile, may gather in a synagogue in something vaguely similar to the church and the congregation, but the man or woman at the front will only ever be a man and he won’t just speak at the altar, he’ll also sacrifice animals. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

You have no concept of translators. Or of a printing press. Or of biblical study guides. You do as you have always done and sit around with your tribe and you tell the stories of your God and your culture and fellowship with your fellow tribe members. You have no idea what dinosaurs are. You don’t know what a fossil record is. You don’t know what carbon dating is. You are thankful for the words that you write down because they are the words your God has given you through the continued repeated communication of your people, your tribe, reciting the words, and you are the one of your tribe who can write and read, you are the scribe, and therefore you are the instrument of your God writing down those words.

You don’t think of yourself as existing without flaws. You don’t think you know everything. There is much you don’t know about the world, but that’s why you trust in God. God will take care of you as God has taken care of your ancestors.

Too many modern day Christians, in the limited and opinionated views of this Christian writer, think they know everything about the world, because they have words on paper that they recite and have read, but they’ve read the words, often, out of context and much too literally from their modern literal, knowing perspective. The world isn’t only several thousand years old. Evolution is observable in micro-organisms—you can watch it happening under a microscope. That does not disprove that there is a God who knows much more than you about the world. There is no reason to fear these or any fact. That is why you trust in God. God will take care of you as God has taken care of your ancestors.

Too many modern day non-Christians, in the limited and opinionated views of this Christian writer, are very similar to their modern day Christian neighbors. It’s a plague of the 20th and 21st Century that far too many of us think that we know everything about the world. None of us do. Don’t dismiss all Christians because of the vocal ones who are just as dogmatic in their views as you are in yours. Don’t dismiss odd foreign ideas that are strongly dissimilar from your own. Learn to try to see through the perspective of the person with those ideas. More likely than not, you’ll learn more about yourself, your ideas, and your culture by doing so.

That’s the only way any of us will ever be able to communicate and continue to move forward together.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nicole Gustas 5/16/2009, 3:28 pm

    Oooo, nice new blog design!

    I really like what you have to say here.

    First off: I've studied Christianity and the Bible, though not so much as you. I'm an atheist but I don't have problems with Christians generally. What I have problems with are a very specific sort of Christian who would argue that your description of the writing process is incorrect, and that the scribe in your story was touched by the hand of God and inspired to write something that is, very specifically, the exact words we need to hear today. (Of course, there are the others that argue that it was the translators of the King James Version that were touched by the hand of God, and what we view as mistranslations are actually cases of God using the translators to fix the errors that the original scribes made. A high-profile Christian writer told me this when I was interviewing him for a documentary on the Rapture. But I digress.) So when someone in authority passes this idea down, well, they're the educated ones and have spent their entire life learning these facts, and we as humans tend to place our trust in people who have authority and education – or those that claim to.

    I think an alternate version of your story is the one in which two tribes have banded together for survival's sake, built what seems to them to be a city and to us would barely be a settlement, and each has their own creation myth. Rather than chucking one or the other, they write down both in order to retain tribal harmony.

    It’s a plague of the 20th and 21st Century that far too many of us think that we know everything about the world.

    And a plague of the 19th century, 18th century, 15th century, and many other centuries. Reading the works of the educated throughout history, there is frequently an idea that we're *thisclose* to knowing everything there is to know about everything. I will be interested to see what big current ideas turn out to be bunkum 100 years from now. (I think chemotherapy is going to be viewed as something barbaric, as we currently view Civil War battlefield amputations. But once again, I digress.)

    Evangelical atheists bother me, too, as do people who equate Christianity with ignorance and small-mindedness. I think ignorance and narrow-mindedness is a flaw of the human condition, and can be found in any subgroup.

  • C.K. Sample III 5/17/2009, 8:44 am

    So wait… Jacobus being translated as James in English b/c King James wanted a book of the Bible named after him was God's correction via the translators. That's rich!

    The alternate version of my story that you propose probably would live much further back in the oral tradition. By the time the Hebrew tribes were writing things down, they were already very firmly of their own tribal identity as the chosen people of God and would be very unlikely to ally with another tribe.

    Totally, agree on the plague stretching earlier than I focused upon in this. I was trying to address the lifetime of people currently living.

    However, I do think that individualism is sharpened quite a bit more in the 19th and 20th Centuries due to things like the cameras lens lending us an outside view of ourselves. There's no longer just the mirror stage and our accumulating life and memories. There's now that, plus an added layer of how other's see us through seeing us through the removed eye of a mechanical camera. I think that makes the “starring in a movie about our own lives” at once an ego driven affair, and gives us a 3rd mechanical eye that we think somehow sees the truth. It doesn't, because it lacks context, as does the shallow misreading that I'm addressing above.

    Amen to the last sentence of your comment. I couldn't agree more.