Darkness, of Sorts

“The horror! The horror!” During high school I was never assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Neither was it required for the humanities core course at a highly selective Grove City College. Knowing that my daughter will be reading it for school, I decided to get ahead of the curve for once and read the book. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I had gathered that it was set in Africa, but that is all I knew. I had even somehow managed to live through the ’80’s without ever seeing Apocalypse Now. Conrad layers the darkness thickly in his story of greed and cruelty in the material trade of ivory. The brief story does not dwell or linger on the suffering, but shows the deep scar never healed in Kurtz’s famous last words. It is a story still worth pondering profoundly.

By chance—in as much as anything happens by chance—I also watched Wolf Creek the same weekend. Again, I was unsure what to expect. I had heard about the movie before, but never with enough detail to give away the plot. Harshly critiqued for its exploitative narrative, the film presents a different setting that experiences the same darkness. Australia, 1990’s. Claiming to be based on actual events, Wolf Creek showcases the frightening duality of Mick Taylor, a character who holds many sleepless nights in store for me. Not that the movie itself is so terribly frightening, but the fact that people like Mick Taylor do exist, upon whom movie makers and novel writers base their characters, is darkness itself. It is the lot of humankind to be a mixed cast of characters, some of whom are decidedly unsavory.

I awake to newspapers bearing the cold, inhumane sentiments callously blasted from the lips of Santorum and Gingrich and their ilk stating that the poor can take care of themselves, the unborn have a right to be born into abject poverty, that women should be made to bow to the whims of men. My native naivety has worn off but slowly, hoping as I always have for sparks of kindness and genuine good will. Those who would be remembered as great leaders would do well to study closely the portraits of Napoleon and Stalin and their friends. And read a little Conrad. To find the still beating heart of darkness we need not venture all the way to Africa or Australia. We can find it in our own backyards.

NASA's view

Reverend Sanders?

According to the Associated Press yesterday, Yenitza Colichon was sentenced to 18 months’ probation for child neglect and cruelty. The charges stemmed from a 2007 religious ceremony in which her seven-year-old daughter was made to watch a chicken sacrifice in New Jersey, and the girl was fed the animal’s heart. The practice is part of the Palo Mayombe religion of central Africa. This whole incident highlights the vital question of when religion crosses the line into child neglect. Many of us bear scars—some psychological, some physical—from our religious upbringings. It has been concluded by psychologists that children do not possess the level of abstraction necessary to deal with religious concepts until they are about the age of twelve. Parents, often fearful of eternal consequences should their children depart the one, true faith (whatever that is), begin religious instruction early, often passing their children off to others who are in no real sense an expert in the religion itself.

The United States embraces, on paper, the concept of freedom of religion. Rightly, it seems, the strong arm of the state will step in when a child is endangered or neglected. The unanswered question is at what point does this neglect or endangerment occur? Authorities turn a blind eye if the faith is time-honored, and, especially, if it is of European/American extraction. Typically of the monotheistic variety. What is standard practice for other religions, as this case demonstrates, may be called into question. Sacrifice is also at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Sublimated into different forms for both political and theological reasons, those of us in that tradition have abstracted sacrifice to bloodless words on a page. When we see red, child neglect and cruelty are cited.

Religions frequently make extreme claims over the lives of their adherents. Most religions relax such claims for children, but others continue ancient practice that is tacitly condoned. Sometimes those permissible rites cause real physical pain and scars. If under the hand of a moyel, okay; if scarification in African tradition, not okay. Religions denigrating personal achievements of the young, setting them onto a path of failure, okay; religions ritually killing animals, as even the Bible demands, not okay. Without making any judgment on specific religious outlooks, the reality of lingering effects remains. Are the terrors of Christian nightmares inspired by tales of Hell any less cruel than watching a domesticated animal die? Is eating a chicken heart any less unusual that fish on Fridays? Is being unfamiliar with a religion grounds for dismissing its authenticity or claim for equality? Some of us find animal sacrifice distasteful, but if we proclaim a tidy sacrifice each Sunday, and share it with our children, that particular rite/right is protected by law.

What would (wiki-commons) chickens do?

The Politics of Dentistry

A story from the Associated Press on NPR this week announced the discovery of some teeth. No ordinary teeth, these perhaps belonged to Homo sapiens at 400,000 BP (“Before Present,” no apologies to gas-guzzlers). And they were found in Israel. Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University are quoted as stating this could rewrite the story of human evolution, suggesting that modern humans emerged some 200,000 years earlier than thought, and in Israel instead of in Africa. Now those are some ambitious choppers! Coincidentally, the discovery was announced the day I was discussing the earliest human occupation of the Levant in my Winter Term class. Of course. One of my students pointed the article out to me.

One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of archaeology and paleontology is the constant surprise of discovery. Often I have to remind myself that the past only exists in reconstruction. Once the moment is over it is lost forever, only to be rebuilt by specialists in documents and artifacts. Reconstruction, however, often comes with a political price tag. Anyone who follows the claims based on archaeological finds knows the folly of discovery. In disputed territories the work of archaeologists is used to stake claims to modern land ownership. Who in the world would not want to own the first location where modern humans emerged on the planet? What staggering claims could be made!

I have always sensed a comfort when thinking of human origins in Africa. Far from the (modern) industrialized mayhem of “civilization,” early hominids took their first tentative steps in Africa. Cut off from the rest of the post-Pangean continents except via the narrow passage of the Sinai, Africa harbored our pre-sapiens ancestors. Once they reached Asia and Europe, they interacted with Neanderthals, as genetics now demonstrate. Interaction led inevitably to extinction, so politics had to have been involved. To find the pre-political Garden of Eden, we need to cast our eyes on Africa. Anthropologists are even now disputing whether the teeth are of Homo sapiens or not. I find, when I’m in the dentist’s chair, it is best to leave politics out of the discussion.

From the Associated Press

Go Fish

You are what you eat. That trite truism has been kicking around for a few decades now, and although it has been an aphorism to encourage healthy eating it does convey a deeper truth. Scientists working in Africa have determined that the hominid diet of roughly two million years ago led to rapid brain expansion (rapid on an evolutionary scale, of course), according the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Remains found in Kenya, featuring a Rutgers University archaeologist, have indicated a widely varied diet of fish, turtles, and crocodiles among ancient hominids. Apparently these animals provide valuable nutrients for brain development, a somewhat disturbing piece of information for us vegetarians.

The more I have pondered this information, the more it has become evident that the concept of God has undergone considerable evolution. As I have noted several times in the past, religious behavior emerges at the very least in the Paleolithic Era of human development. What those non-literate ancestors thought or believed about “God” is long lost, but it seems to have persisted into modern conceptions of divinity. Belief in supernatural beings is attested world-wide, and therefore is a true human universal. (There are, of course, non-theistic religions and individuals, but all cultures show some measure of belief in the supernatural.)

In those moments when I am free to ponder what this might mean, I wonder about the earliest conceptions of the divine. It seems likely that this being was like a hominid, able to respond in kind to placating gestures on the part of early humans. An abstraction simply doesn’t fit easily into minds focused on the practical aspects of survival without the guidance of professional theologians. That early God was able to, but not obligated to assist our fearful ancestors with the struggles of daily life. That aspect of the divine being has not changed in many millennia. Even today many religious individuals still consume fish, a food approved even for meat-free days, by God himself.

Early images of God?

Papal bull?

In world news, yesterday’s paper ran an article entitled “Pontiff praises Africa as font of spirituality” (New Jersey Star-Ledger). This brief piece concerning a clerical meeting about Africa (held in Italy), dredged up some interesting concepts: that the African continent is a font of spirituality, but it suffers from materialism and fundamentalism. Having never been to Africa, I am not in a position to assess how materialistic the continent is, but from the images seared into my brain of barely clothed, starving children who own nothing, having this comment come from the opulence of the Vatican is jarring. Teaching by example is far more effective than, well, pontificating. Perhaps if some of the art and Christian swag were sold to invest in the poor, there might be reason to listen to rebukes from foreign potentates.

Catholics and Fundamentalists sometimes share political agendas and cooperate to get their holy candidates elected, but clearly they clash when it comes to issues of religious praxis, and especially, authority. I watched with horror over the last two decades as Roman Catholic bishops paired up with the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to support the Bush family legacy because they agree on the same conservative side of the issues. I even saw this on a small scale at Nashotah House. Once the victory is won, however, the honeymoon is over and the claws come unsheathed and fangs are bared.

Religious fundamentalism is an extremely dangerous force, and Rome is right to call it a “virus.” Like Catholicism, however, it is based on fear of dissing the almighty. If we dare probe deeper, underlying all the obsequious servility towards the divine, both forms of Christianity thrive on their own power. Being able to control the masses with claims of sole spiritual authority — sorry, only one set of keys to the kingdom — is also a dangerous thing. Benedict IX, meet Jimmy Swaggart; Jimmy, meet Bennie.

Jerry blesses a papal bull

Jerry blesses a papal bull