The South Pacific brings to mind light-hearted musicals, uncomplicated lifestyles, and Gilligan’s Island. For those of us born in the eastern parts of North America it can seem pretty exotic. Especially since we can seldom afford to go there. Since my income has wavered around the subsistence level of a reluctant urbanite, I instead travel there in my mind. I came across Charles Montgomery’s The Shark God at a recent book sale. I generally scour the anthropology tables since I find the belief systems of others so fascinating. Montgomery, a journalist, traveled to Melanesia to trace the route his great-grandfather took as a missionary. A non-believer himself, Montgomery wanted to see the magic that a former generation believed in firsthand. Noting that missionaries often despoil the cultures they are trying to “convert,” his tale is full of insights and observations and disappointments. My kind of book.
Montgomery is remarkably open minded. Like many of our generation, he outgrew the religious fervor that seemed so strong just a few decades ago. Still, he is open to the possibilities in the lesser understood cultures of the South Pacific. He notes that E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the famous anthropologist, opined that non-believers made poor anthropologists. Even missionaries might make better, he suggested, since at least they know what it is to believe. And here is the driving tension of Montgomery’s narrative. Sometimes you simply have to be open in order to see. Not all evidence is empirical. He recounts little “miracles” that he later reflects may have been mere diversions. Nevertheless, the world opens up when it is seen through native eyes.
Missionaries, although they may be better equipped to understand foreign (or native) believers, nevertheless try to change them. What I found most fascinating is how even those who fully identify as Christians in the south seas have combined that belief with their indigenous religions. Christianity, even among the clergy, is an overlay for culture. In ways that shock and frustrate missionaries, those converted maintain elements of their culture that fit uncomfortably with doctrine. How do you convert the converted? Or maybe the word is more properly “pervert.” Belief systems grow in cultures and tend to introduce high moral standards, no matter the deities (or non-deities) known. The Shark God is a wonderful window open on the South Pacific, a place to which some of us will only ever be able to travel in our limited minds. We are, after all, products of our culture.
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Mysticism, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged anthropology, Charles Montgomery, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, magic, Melanesia, missionaries, South Pacific, The Shark God
The world is flat—not. Harm de Blij’s The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape is, despite the author’s hope of improvement, a sobering read. Geography is one of those subjects that studies show Americans consistently failing. But de Blij begins and ends with one of my favorite themes: that place defines a person. One of the realities with which all humans must reckon is that we have no control over where we’re born. As de Blij demonstrates, not fatalistically, that place will determine to a great extent what life has to offer us. Chances are that most of you reading this were born in what social geographers call “the core.” The core is that affluent part of the globe that encompasses successful states with relatively good prospects for their citizens. It is, numerically, the smaller part of the world’s population and it is the base of claims for the world’s flatness—that is, its apparent sameness across borders. De Blij, who has crossed one or two of those borders, knows that there is a roughness inherent in this world, and those outside the core pay the highest price.
Among the many factors de Blij examines one—religion as an accident of birth—comes up repeatedly. Religions quickly complicate efforts at fairness and equal distribution with various theologies of why the poor are poor and that we can justify leaving them that way. Or worse, a religion may decide, since it alone is right, that those believing otherwise ought to be destroyed. Internecine as well as international rancor is a commonplace of the news as religions compete for the alpha male spot on the human (actually man-made, gender distinction intended) hierarchy. The religion you’re born into, for most of the world’s population, is the correct one. Missionaries, by definition, disagree. Theirs is the true correct religion and even if it doesn’t improve the lot in life of the poverty-stricken, it will at least make for a better afterlife, cold comfort though it may be.
One issue that de Blij touches upon only minimally is the sacredness of place. Of course, that is often the ground for conflict, but in smaller ways we often feel an attachment to the place we enter the world. Beyond visiting the relatives still near my hometown, sometimes I just want to go there and linger, pondering what this world intended for such as me. The distress I feel when I see that the hospital where I was born has been closed down, the houses in which I grew up razed, and even my first school remodeled, touches something deep and undefinable. It is a small part of who I am that has been erased, the silencing of the clock’s ticking. Those rough hills were my home for the two most formative decades of my time on earth and I belong to them. I owe them who I am. This is the mystery of sacred geography. The refinery fires, the childhood friendships, the Christian bookstore that propelled me in a direction I may alter but not eradicate. It’s not rational, I know. But like many animals, I feel the draw, and de Blij points out the many benefits and frightening realities that attend it.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by again yesterday. They were very friendly and polite, and even remembered my name from the last visit. One of the missionaries was new to me, and she assured me that God’s name is Jehovah. She said the Bible proved this. The missionary who’d spoken to me before knew I was a former professor of religion. Nevertheless, they both worked at trying to get me to see the light. I extended to them the courtesy I extend to my students and blog readers, namely, of not revealing my own personal religious convictions. It must be really frustrating to try to convert someone when you don’t know what they already believe!
The point I never have the heart to bring up is God’s name. In fact, no one is certain as to what the divine name is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Yahweh” is the closest approximation, based on present conventions of transliterating Hebrew and reconstructing vowels that were never recorded. The word “Jehovah” is historically well understood. It begins with the Jewish reticence to speak God’s name aloud during the second temple period. In order to assure that a reader didn’t accidentally blurt out the divine name when reading Scripture, the Masoretes took the convention of writing the consonants of Yahweh (yhwh – Hebrew has no capital letters) with the vowels for the epithet “lord,” adonai in transliterated Hebrew. The initial J comes from the fact that to get a “y” sound in German a “j” is used. So we get the “J” from yhwh, the “a” from adonai, and alternate from there “h-o-v” (again, because of the Germanic origin of the word, a “v” was used instead of “w”) and finally, “a-h.” All together, this word, which was never used in biblical times, becomes Jehovah, a new name for God.
I admire the conviction of those who stop by a stranger’s house and present their views. When pressed to accept, however, I threw them Lessing’s rings. Gotthold Lessing once suggested that God gave humanity three golden rings: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What God did not give was the answer to which religion was the true one. I placed this conundrum before my earnest guests, but they already had the answer that had flummoxed Lessing. I suggested that if one’s conviction is strong, now borrowing from Kierkegaard, then one must follow that conviction. No, I was told, for the Bible reveals the whole truth. I mentioned that not all religions utilized the Bible in that way. I was told the Bible reveals the whole truth. About that time I had to run off to administer a final exam in a Bible class. The exam covered Ezekiel. And I knew, with a shudder, that Ezekiel had been told to look out from the watchtower!
Ezekiel or Charles Taze Russell's watchtower?