Honest to Good

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The oldest standing building in Oxford is the Saxon era church tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. Dating from around 1040, it still stands, providing shade to the various buskers who are hoping to earn a bit of cash from their musical talents below. Although there are some modern buildings that harsh the historical sense of the city, you get the impression that the British revere their tradition. A recent article in The Guardian notes that the United Kingdom, seat of the Anglican Church worldwide, is among the least religious countries in the world. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either very good or very bad news. Several analyses exist as to why it is so. The country has gone from an empire on which the sun never set to a strong, yet diminished country. The two World Wars took an enormous toll on the island nation. The population tends to be well educated. They adore their royals, although the monarchy is largely for show. There is a disconnect between the fiction and the fact of life in such a place.

Britain may be leading the direction toward which secular societies will inevitably follow. Still, the survey cited in the article indicates that two-thirds of the world population sees itself as very religious. Surprising and flummoxing atheist advocacy groups everywhere, the young tend to be more religious than the old. Religious belief shows no sign of dying out. It was predicted decades ago that it would be dead by now. We were supposed to have a moon base in 1999, of course, and I’m still waiting to see if we manage the Sea Lab in the next five years. History has a way of disappointing us. Perhaps the silent skies through it all make it difficult to think there’s any direction coming from above. Left to our own devices, what do we see?

The UK hardly qualifies as a hedonistic state. There are social problems, to be sure, but it maintains a fairly safe, cultured atmosphere throughout. Tradition can be fiction and can still be meaningful. We don’t see angry atheists trying to bulldoze an ancient, if phallic, church tower. We don’t see angry crowds taking sledge hammers to the British Museum. The people on public transit are unfailingly polite, and I’ve not been treated like an object as I commonly am on my daily commute to Manhattan. Religion, it seems, is not the motive for civilized behavior. Nor does religion appear to detract from it. Has the holy grail been discovered after all?

They Call it Civilization

An interesting article about the Assyrians appeared in last week’s Guardian, On Art blog. The piece by Jonathan Jones, describes a piece of ancient Assyrian art on auction that the British Museum is not interested in buying. Having toured the Assyrian galleries a time or two, more’s the pity, but Jones puckishly suggests that the museum may be afraid of the curse inscribed on the piece. We all know of the story of ancient artifacts that come with value-added supernatural attributes—it’s a standard staple of Hollywood horror. Jones knows, however, that the museum isn’t really afraid of a curse, but he does display an interesting attitude toward the Assyrians. You see, the Assyrians were conquerors. They knew how to intimidate potential enemies long before their armies ever set out on the move. The imagery displays powerful men, ripped and ready, killing lions in hand-to-claw combat. Jones rightly points out that some of this is disturbing. What strikes me as interesting is a probably unintended subtext.

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“Assyrian art is certainly awe-inspiring – but perhaps not civilised,” Jones writes. As if civilization necessitates politeness. Perhaps it should, but civilization began in the very region south of ancient Assyria, among the Sumerians who were a culture emulated by later Mesopotamians. There is no doubt that the Mesopotamians gave us many of our beloved Bible stories, in their original, unedited form. They gave us organized religion, writing, and the wheel. Comparing the Assyrians to the Egyptians and Greeks, Jones suggests they were uncivilized. I would beg to differ. The Egyptians and Greeks could also be quite violent. The Assyrian aesthetic was a bit different, to be sure, but there is a raw beauty to it. And I have to wonder why, from our western perspective, what comes out of Iraq seems to hint at something insidious or sinister.

I’ve always been a fan of the Mesopotamians. Since a Ph.D. program only lasts so long (for those of us perpetually struggling to make ends meet), I did not have time to indulge my Assyriological fantasies once I learned of them. I was deep into Ugarit, and although I loved the tales of Asherah and Baal, there was something more ancient, more powerful, lying to the east. I often thought that if I could’ve had more time, my interests would’ve definitely drifted toward the progenitors of civilization. Yes, some of the art-work is deeply troubling, but the Assyrians, indeed, the Babylonians and Sumerians, looked at the world from the viewpoint of cultural creators. Civilization involves violence, no matter how we try to hide it. When I stand in London, taking in those Assyrian reliefs I see an honesty that is carefully hidden by the Egyptians and Greeks. And I think I prefer to know the truth of the situation, curse or not.

Sail Away With Me

Fascination with Noah’s ark is never-ending. It represents the salvation of life in the face of deadly catastrophe, the concern of the divine for humanity, and cuddly animals we put in our children’s cribs. I suppose, however, I properly shouldn’t call it “Noah’s” ark, because the story predates Noah by some time. The Mesopotamian cultures seem to have been the original flood mythographers; more specifically, the Sumerians first gave shape to the tale. Perhaps in anticipation of his new book, Irving L. Finkel, curator of Mesopotamian artifacts at the British Museum, is quoted as saying the ark was disk-shaped. In a story that is sure to catch the attention of Ufologists, the argument is made that a newly translated text reveals the ark to have been a floating saucer. Why does Styx come to mind?

This past weekend I discovered Ancient Origins, a website purporting to give information about the ancient world. The story of the round ark appeared there recently. The author of the piece, April Holloway, suggests something that has been on some people’s minds all along—maybe the ark was real after all, but we’ve been looking for the wrong thing. Holloway doesn’t outright say that, but the article hints that this may be more than a myth. Usually the dividing line between myth and history is drawn at the biblical borders. According to those bound with faith commitments, pagan myths continue right up until Moses. Once they enter the covers of the Holy Bible they become history. We have known for decades now that the story of the ark was borrowed from other ancient cultures. We also know that the world, physically, in any case, could never be entirely flooded and come out of it looking like our world. Ours is a somewhat drier history, watered by wonderful myths.

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Some Christian groups use the flood story as a paradigm for the rapture—the belief that Christians will be rescued, animal-like, before the worst unnatural disaster ever hits the planet. (Although “planet” may be a misnomer—no biblical writer knew that we orbited the sun on a roughly spherical rock with a molten center.) Earlier Christians saw the ark story as a metaphor for the more spiritual salvation of the faithful in a godless world. There is a strange kind of security in this story, like knowing that you don’t have to go to work for an entire week. And so we can’t let it go, even when we know it’s a myth. “I thought that they were angels, but to my surprise, we climbed aboard their starship, we headed for the skies.” We’ve done a good job polluting our planet and we want to be pulled out of this mess, like the world Wall-e’s people know, to a realm of comfort in the skies. But it is a myth after all, even if I do find myself squeezing my teddy bear and hoping against hope for a happy ending.

Divine Checkmate

The first time I met Jehu I did not recognize him. When I first visited the British Museum a couple of decades ago I hadn’t had the benefit of teaching students long enough to realize the importance of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. But then, who really does? The obelisk, one of many artifacts essential to understanding the Bible in its context, contains the only known image of an Israelite king from a contemporaneous period. Jehu is here mistakenly considered the “son of Omri,” but is correctly identified as the king of Israel. He is bowing in tribute to a foreign king, a position in which no monarch likes to find himself. Before leaving the British Museum this time around I made sure to include him on my list of ancient people to meet.

The Bible contains far less history than we are accustomed to think, so when we find a case of convergence where Assyrian and Israelite agree, mostly, it is worth pausing to consider. Assyrian interests can only in the most abstruse way be considered religious; ancient peoples lived in a world where gods were both ubiquitous and largely irrelevant to daily life. Irrelevant in the sense that probably most people only tried to access a god’s pity when a time of trouble arose—priests existed to keep the deities happy on a daily basis. Citizens supported this system with taxes. How reluctantly we can only guess.

We have no reason to suppose that Israelites were more religious than the rest. Eventually, after the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, they came to see their religion in terms of monotheism. Still, the work of keeping Yahweh happy devolved on the priests, with the backing of the king. The king was God’s representative on earth. In this sense the only surviving image of a king of Israel, showing him bowed before the unflinching might of the Assyrians, becomes an unexpected paradigm. Both kings were pawns of the gods, and at the end of the day one stands regally and the other bows in utter submission.