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So, it’s Saturday, and I’m having a very strange day.  For one thing, last night I got the first decent sleep I’ve had since all this stuff started with Greg. 

I have no idea why this was the case.  Nothing had changed, at that point–nothing much has changed now–and everything I’ve been worrying about is still there to worry about.  Maybe my body just got to the point where it couldn’t help itself.  At any rate, I slept.

Still, as is the way with these things, even though I woke up many hours past my usual hour, I was still exhausted, and I still am.  This means I have been dragging myself around the landscape without getting much of anything done, and without being able to concentrate very well on what little I did get done.

I’m still wending my way through Augustine, and yesterday I’d gotten to a part that really wasn’t what I needed.   Wrath of God.  Worthlessness of the human being after the Fall.  That kind of thing.

Fortunately, by the time I arrived on my love seat this morning, we’d gotten past that, and I found myself in a long set of passages about two things I actually find interesting instead of just distressing.

(I don’t know what theologians thought they were doing when they got into that miserable worm thing (think Jonathan Edwards and “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God”), but it really isn’t conducive to getting nonbelievers to think Christianity is a good idea.)

Anyway, the two things that interested me were first a section on the exegesis of various things in Genesis, and next a little talk on the reported marvels of the world.

Genesis first.  I have on my bookshelves a thick hardcover book called The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, by C. Dennis McKinsey, put out by Prometheus Books in 1995.   It contains page after page after page of supposed mistakes of fact, science and history in the Bible, and whole lists of places where the Bible is supposed to contradict itself.

I say supposed, because although some of the items are perfectly legitimate, a lot of the others are tendentious in the extreme.  Some depend for what force they have on a sort of know-nothing refusal to understand how a literary text actually functions.  In this category I’d certainly put the supposed “contradictions” in the four Gospels about the scene at Christ’s tomb on the day He supposedly rose from the dead.   The “criticisms” rely on the assumption that each Gospel writer was of course attempting to describe the scene in every precise detail. 

But anybody who has ever looked through eyewitness reports of anything knows that this is not what happens.  Instead, each witness stresses those things that seem important at the time.  They’ll say, “There were a bunch of people there.  Mary and Shirley were there” because Mary and Shirley are important to them in some way.  They don’t mean nobody but Mary and Shirley were there.

If you see what I mean.

At any rate, the guy used to have a website, but I couldn’t find it this afternoon.  I did find a lot of other things in the same vein, and you’re welcome to google them if you want to.

But what interested me about this portion of Augustine was this:  the issues argued in Augustine’s book are the same as the ones argued in McKinsey’s. 

Nothing has changed, in all these years, about what people find credible and incredible about the Bible.  There it all is, written in the year 410 or so:  problems with the proportions of the ark, with the which animals were on board and what they ate, with how the animals got from the ark and onto remote islands after the Flood waters receded.

In fact, there were some issues that I’d never seen argued in any modern forum, including some about discrepancies between translations. 

Adam and Eve were there, though, with Augustine cheerfully saying that, of course, their children married each other, sisters and brothers, because it would have been okay then because that was all there was to marry.

Well, okay, among other things.

But quite a few of the issues that make modern day defenders of Biblical literalism squirm caused Augustine no problem at all–but then, he wasn’t a Biblical literalist.

The second thing that interested me was a glancing reference to reports of marvels in faraway countries–of men with no necks and their faces coming out of their torsos,  of people whose voices came out of their hands, or lots of things like that.

By the time you get to the high Middle Ages, this sort of thing is a popular genre.  People would go off on long trips and write books when they came back, describing their travels and all the wonderful and strange things they saw.

The most famous of these is, of course, the travelogue produced by Marco Polo about his trips to China in the fourteenth century.  But what they don’t tell you in school is that the reason Polo’s book is famous is because he managed to write it without…making stuff up.

Most of the people who wrote these things simply went off the deep end and invented all kinds of nonsense, including the kind of thing I was talking about above.

A lot of them claimed to have found and visited the kingdom of Prester John, who supposedly ruled over a kingdom of Christians entirely surrounded by hostile Muslims and Pagans somewhere in “the Orient.”   That would have been sane enough if it wasn’t also said that his kingdom contained the Fountain of Youth and bordered the Garden of Eden, where an angel stood guard at the gate. 

He was supposed to have a mirror from which he could see any part of his kingdom, in detail, no matter how far away, sort of like a Medieval magic version of those neighborhood satellite cams where you can get on the Internet and look at your house from space. 

It was that kind of thing.

A few years ago–eh, maybe back in the Eighties or early Nineties?–Umberto Eco produced a novel called Baudolino, which was supposed to be just one of those Medieval travelogues, complete with marvels and wonders.   I loved that novel. 

And I wondered then, as I wonder now, why people did that–why they do it now, for that matter.  Why does a James Frey write fiction and call it fact?  Why did the Medieval travel writers do that?

And then, of course, there’s always the possibility that it wasn’t really fiction, or not all of it was.

It did turn out that there were people in Africa called Pygmies. 

And they were very, very short.

Written by janeh

February 12th, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Odd'

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  1. Well, OK. Maybe there are very, very short people in Africa, but you can’t expect educated people to believe that bit in Marco Polo about the Chinese burning black rocks, or about unicorns being big squat beasts, mostly grayisn-black. There are limits, after all.

    Seriously, I do sometimes wonder if we’re missing part of the cultural knowledge, like the Chinese who were upset over a “news” story in the ONION, or the time Liberia went into a panic because of what the head of the American Nazi Party said he was going to do after he was elected President of the United States.

    We write things today that look and feel like non-fiction. They cite sources. Sometimes they have footnotes and bibliography. It might be very hard to sort out in a thousand years that we all know there isn’t really a Red Book of Westmarch, a Golden Goblin Press edition of UNAUSPRECHEN KULTEN, nor a John Dee English Translation of the NECRONOMICON, and that none of us believed literally the stories which cited them as sources.

    There are a couple of “memoirs” of the Trojan War that first appear in Byzantine times. Maybe they were frauds, but maybe they were no more meant as history than my copies of SWORD AT SUNSET and WHOM THE GODS WOULD DESTROY. I don’t understand Byzantium well enough to know–and maybe no one does.

    Might take a look at Avram Davidson’s ADVENTURES IN UNHISTORY: CONJECTURES ON THE FACTUAL FOUNDATIONS OF SEVERAL ANCIENT LEGENDS. Prester John gets a chapter. So do unicorns, and Sinbad.


    12 Feb 11 at 9:18 pm

  2. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for people to understand that not all writing, not even all non-fiction, is intended as a literal transcription of facts – and even when it is, other stuff creeps in, like the thing about eyewitness unreliability, the focus on people or things you know well or are most interested in, the desire to make something grab the readers attention (Unicorns! Angels with flaming swords guarding Prester John’s kingdom!) so that they’ll buy and read the book.

    Sometimes I think it’s a kind of childish trust in the written text that some people don’t grow out of. I remember when my parents introduced me to Gilbert and Sullivan (in a compilation of the most famous pieces sung in American accents and so suitable for children!). I loved the music right off, but my father noticed that I took the lyrics rather literally. When he asked me, in the nicest way, if I thought Navy captains were greeted by their men singing a greeting when they arrived on ship, I not only saw the joke, but had learned how to spot such funny discrepancies between the G&S world and reality. I still love G&S, but I can still remember when a LOT of the stuff I read was mentally classified as ‘happens somewhere other than this boring small town’. It took a while to separate the ‘probably does really exist’ from ‘probably doesn’t really exist’.

    And of course, we – or at least me, and I suspect lots of others – have a LOT of difficulty remembering our own cultural biases when thinking about things that happened in the distant past – another country, as someone said.

    As for the ‘miserable worm thing’ – I doubt it was often used for evangelism, except possibly with those who are feeling terribly guilty about something anyway. I haven’t encountered a lot of it firsthand, but I think it may often be aimed at the converted who STILL don’t get it and are STILL living terribly un-Christian lives. So the exasperated preacher tries to terrify them into seeing the error of their ways.

    Paul did it better.


    13 Feb 11 at 7:03 am

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