Sweet Poison

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later...

If you change your mind, maybe you can spit it out later…

During the first twenty years of my life, a time I mostly spent romping around the woods and fields of Sand Mountain (that’s in northeastern Alabama, for you heathens), I saw exactly two venomous snakes. One was a cottonmouth swimming in a catfish pond, who took one look at me and swam the other way; the second was a copperhead sunning himself on a rock next to that same pond. I was able to sneak up close enough to spy on the copperhead for about two seconds before he, also, detected my presence and bolted.

There are, in fact, four venomous snakes native to my home state: the water moccasin, the copperhead, the coral snake, and an assortment of rattlesnakes. (The latter two varieties managed to elude me for the entire two decades, despite my habit of placing myself very much in their way. To this day I’ve never seen a rattlesnake or a coral snake outside of an open glass tank in a church … but that’s a story for another day.) The majority of the snakes in the region are harmless to humans, or even highly beneficial, efficient predators on mice, rats, moles, and other farmyard pests. Continue reading

Sighting the target

burning computerLike millions of other people sitting in front of their computers yesterday, my reaction to the sad story of Cecil the lion was both visceral and vehement. The impulse to react accordingly was irresistible: it was also wrong.

The fifty-something American from Minnesota whose adventures launched such a firestorm was perfectly cast for the role of villain. He was a dentist, a job that arouses pretty negative feelings in many of us; better yet, he was obviously a wealthy dentist: How many of us can afford to walk away from our jobs for weeks at a stretch to go jaunting off around the globe (especially when we have dental bills to pay)? Most importantly, he was an avid sports hunter, not just of the local turkey and deer but of animals that most of us only dream of ever seeing in the flesh. Continue reading

An insane pronouncement.

Copernicus_solar_systemLet’s suppose you’re doing last Sunday’s crossword puzzle.

You’re stumped on seven down: a five-letter word for “indistinct”. There are a couple of possibilities here, but the one that pops into your mind first is “fuzzy”, so you drop that in, very faintly, in pencil.

Okay, now what? Fifteen across, a six-letter word for “mystery”, is now coming up “enizma”, which is obviously wrong. A moment’s thought gives us a 99.9% certainty that we should be seeing “enigma” in that slot, but that gives us “fugzy” for seven down, our original problem clue: once again, it’s safe to assume that something’s not clicking.

What to do? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that “fuzzy” isn’t working, so out comes the thesaurus.

Let’s see: “Blurry”? That gives us “enirma”, and we’re not having any of that. “Indefinite”? Too many letters. “Soft”? Too few.

Here we go: “Vague”. Pencil it in, and … yes! It fits. We fill in a few of the blanks around it and we see that everything works.

. . .

The scientific method is like that crossword puzzle. There are some things you’re positive about, some you’re reasonably sure you’ve figured out correctly, and some you just can’t quite pin down, but the important thing is that everything interconnects, so a piece of the puzzle that’s clearly wrong will begin to stand out pretty quickly as the rest of the clues are filled in.

Individual facts, like the words in the crossword, can be tried, rejected, accepted, or replaced, but what matters in the end is the internal consistency of the entire structure, and the way the whole puzzle evolves and solidifies as more and more blanks are filled in. “Fuzzy” was perfectly acceptable until “enizma” came along; then it became clear that there was an error somewhere, because the bigger pattern wasn’t holding together.

Until Nicolaus Copernicus overturned the applecart in the sixteenth century, the generally accepted view of the solar system placed the earth at the center, with the sun, moon and planets orbiting around it. This system worked fine for centuries, but as time passed and the observed data began to fill in more and more blanks, problems appeared. To make the system fit what we could actually see happening in the sky, the orbits of all the heavenly bodies had to be incredibly complex. Mars and Jupiter needed to stop dead and then go backward from time to time; eclipses could only be explained by mysterious invisible objects casting shadows at odd angles; the moons of Jupiter and Saturn had to perform amazing spirals and loop-the-loops.

All the blanks in the crossword had words in them, but the answers weren’t making any sense.

Copernicus looked at the problem and realized that maybe “fuzzy” wasn’t the right word for seven down (figuratively speaking). He made a very simple adjustment in the prevailing system: he moved the sun into the center, and the planets into orbit around it, with their own moons orbiting them in turn. Now, suddenly, all of the orbits were ordinary ellipses, smooth and steady; eclipses were nothing more than shadows cast by one object on another; and the positions of all the bodies could be predicted centuries in advance by calculations any educated person could understand. It was no longer necessary to accept “enizma” as a word.

Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heavens as its center, would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves.”   – Nicolaus Copernicus

Even Copernicus didn’t have all the answers. With the passage of time, we’ve developed more sophisticated tools with which to observe our universe, and we’ve found questions that would have crippled the thinkers of the Renaissance. In the sixteenth century no one was equipped to measure the gravitational interactions between and among the planets; we didn’t know anything about how spacetime itself was organized, or the subtle effects of solar cycles and nearby stars on planetary orbits; the very size and shape of the universe could only be guessed at.

But still, even today, we can build on what Copernicus gave us all those years ago: we don’t have to try to come up with some elaborate excuse to allow us to use “enizma” for fifteen across. We can use logic and common sense to resolve the dilemma, and from there we can move on to new questions, and search for better answers to old ones.

In religion, no one questions the unreasonable answer or the wildly complicated explanation. We just accept that “enizma” is correct, even if it doesn’t seem to make the least bit of sense, because that’s what faith is: accepting without the need to understand.

The fundamental truth of science, on the other hand, is that there are no fundamental truths: we observe, we theorize, we experiment, and when we find a model that works, we build from there, knowing that it’s best to use a pencil, because we may still have to go back and change an early answer based on what we’ve learned since.

And that, dear reader, is why I love science. An enigma is a challenge to be met, a question for which each new answer always leads to bigger and more exciting puzzles demanding to be solved — and if we’re willing to stop at “enizma”, we’ll never have the opportunity.


Journal: Monday, March 23

CruzThe ruler of the Aztec empire was called the “tlatoani”, which roughly translates to “the one who talks the loudest”. From the founding of Gran Tenochtitlan in 1325 to the final collapse in 1521, the Aztec civilization survived for a grand total of 196 years, during which time they had become so hated by all of their neighbors that even the rapacious Spanish invaders were embraced as the lesser of two evils.

Ted Cruz for President? Being the one who talks the loudest does not necessarily mean that what you’re saying is right, or smart, or good for your people, or for your country. In fact, it usually means that you don’t really care about any of those things: you simply want to be king, you want to sit on the big chair where everyone has to listen to you, like it or not (like the students at Liberty University this morning who were required to attend Mr Cruz’ announcement speech) — even as fundamentalist religion, anti-intellectualism, environmental collapse, and ill-considered military adventurism are bringing your nation to its knees, as they did in Tenochtitlan five hundred years ago.

I suppose that if you’re someone who believes that allowing same-sex couples to marry is the greatest threat the United States faces in the twenty-first century, then by all means, Ted Cruz is probably your guy. But denying me my rights is not going to protect you when the conquistadores arrive, and burning the books and crucifying the thinkers because they describe problems you don’t want to face is not going to make you better equipped to cope with the real world when it comes crashing through your gates.


Journal: Saturday, March 7

birdandfish_600My painting “Dialogue Between the Bird and the Fish” will be finding a new home this weekend, and I thought this might be a nice time to tell the story that the picture illustrates. So, without further ado …

A fly, hovering near the surface of a pond, finds itself suddenly the target of not one, but two predators: a bird who darts down from the nearby cattails and a fish who rises up unexpectedly from the depths of the water. Fortunately for the fly, his attackers are so startled that he has the opportunity to dart out of reach of either (only to be eaten later by a dragonfly — such is life).

The bird, retreating to an overhanging willow branch, stares at the interloper, who rises to the surface and returns her gaze with equal astonishment.

“Such a miserable beast!” the bird thinks, not without pity. “Unable to rise into the open air, never to perch in a tree to sing the dawn into being, lost forever in the dim and the wet. For him the sun can only be a dim glow, and the wind but a rumor. His sky is a ceiling beyond which he may never go, and summer and winter, spring and fall, down in the depths are all one. His song is nothing but a croak, and his feathers are hard as glass. How sad!”

The fish, for his part, finds the bird’s lot equally distressing. “Suppose the poor creature is traveling and wants to pause for a moment to admire the view; why, she would crash to the ground and be eaten by snakes in a moment. Only amid the obscuring tangle of the trees and shrubbery can she rest. And even then, she must be prey to wind and weather, extremes of temperature, never safe from sun and storm. Her scales are frayed and frazzled, hardly adequate protection from anything. And those sounds she makes, as though in terrible pain! Pitiful thing.”

The two stare, hesitating, until a hawk sounds in the distance and the bird darts away to her covert among the cattails, and the fish scents the approach of a pike and drifts down into a secure niche among the rocks of the bank, each filled with pity for the unfortunate other.

The shape of words.

William Tyndale, c. 1490 - 1536.

William Tyndale, c. 1490 – 1536.

Anyone who knows me may be surprised to learn that I own three Bibles (the Revised Standard, the New English, and the King James), as well as the Book of Mormon, the Nag Hammadi Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and an English translation of the Qur’an. I know the difference between an Apostle and an Epistle, I can list the twelve sons of Jacob*, and I can whip out a quote from the four Gospels for just about any occasion.

None of which, in my case, has anything to do with religion. I am not religious: I am, however, a student of history, and as such I can hardly ignore the profound impact that organized religion has had on human culture over the last few thousand years.

I mentioned that I own three different English translations of the Bible: In fact, there exist approximately 450 English-language Bibles, ranging from partial transcriptions into Old English appearing only a couple of centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire all the way to Eugene Peterson’s The Message, completed in 2002.

Why so many?

As with any document so deeply embedded in a culture, control of one can imply control of the other: shades of meaning can support one political faction, one viewpoint, one set of social mores, over the competitors. Influence over the words translates to influence over the people. In modern times we have but to look at the vast differences between various interpretations of the second amendment to the US Constitution to see how divisive these nuances can be – an entire branch of our government exists for the sole purpose of resolving ambiguities in our written body of law.

On October 4, 1535 – 479 years ago today – William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale printed the first complete Bible in English translation. The book was published somewhere on the European continent, financed by various members of a wealthy Dutch family.

When that first edition of what came to be known as the Coverdale Bible was printed, Henry VIII was king of England, and was in the process of rearranging his own relationship to organized Christianity. The question of what language the Bible should appear in was not uppermost in Henry’s mind; an acceptable English translation was something he was prepared to deal with later. Much later.

For the Mother Church, on the other hand, these were difficult and complicated times, and any drift from official dogma was the thin end of the wedge.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 turned out to be a very good thing for much of the rest of Europe, as highly sophisticated Byzantine Greeks fled the Turks and scattered into the West. This shot in the arm stimulated thinkers like William Tyndale into examining their own cultures more objectively, and many realized that the medieval worldview had created a cultural desert in places like England and France, stifling ideas and retarding development. Tyndale — among others — began to absorb classical thought and intellectual tools and to use the lessons they learned to reorganize the clumsy and limited Middle English of their day into a newer and more responsive tongue. The fertile language of Shakespeare and Marlowe and the other writers and thinkers of England’s Renaissance was a direct result of this much-needed overhaul.

In fourteenth century England, John Wycliffe had translated chunks of scripture into Middle English, triggering a backlash by the Church against any rendition of the Biblical texts into a language other than Latin. Greek and Hebrew texts existed, of course, as sources of the Latin canon, but English and German were the languages of peasants and shopkeepers rather than scholars and priests, and were not considered acceptable vehicles for Scripture.

In 1517 Martin Luther began stirring the pot more vigorously, and the rift between Lutherans and Catholics was cemented in 1521 with the Edict of Worms. Luther’s translation of the Bible from Latin into everyday German had effectively cut out the middleman in the search for salvation. Now anyone who could read could get his religion directly from the source: the vast and expensive machinery of the Church at Rome was no longer a necessary intermediary.

By the time Tyndale and Coverdale produced their translation, Pope Paul III was not in a mood for polite discussion. To add insult to injury, Tyndale was not merely a translator: he was a scholar who had relied not only on the official Latin Bible for his source material, but also older Hebrew and Greek texts, correcting what he saw as mistakes that had crept into the Latin works.

Tyndale survived the publication of his Bible by only a year: with the ink still wet, he was arrested, tried and condemned for his efforts, and in 1536 he was strangled, then his body burned at the stake. His dying wish was that King Henry would adopt his translation for the English church and two years later Henry commissioned what would come to be known as the Great Bible, based on Tyndale’s work. In 1604 James Stuart, King of Scotland and England, the grandson of King Henry’s older sister, would commission yet another English Bible, a tweak of the Great Bible designed to appease the Puritans, a faction within the English church who had objected to what they perceived as errors in the previous versions; this is the book we now know as the King James Bible.

Since the days of James I, an enormous array of scholars, dogmatists, swindlers, mystics and true believers have revisited the job. Some translators have returned to the earliest verifiable sources to recreate something they hoped would more closely resemble the scriptures of the Church’s first centuries. Others have rewritten the King James version into a modern idiom, appealing to a less-erudite audience bewildered by the intricacies of Jacobean English. Still others have applied the filters of their own cultural outlook – discarding or obscuring some passages, amplifying others – in order to confirm the supremacy of a specific view of society.

In the end, of course, we’re all still a very long way from home. Even by Tyndale’s day, patriarchs and popes, kings and committees had all reworked and rearranged the available material to fit what they believed it was meant to say. Over time the preconceptions and assumptions of every age were imposed on the text, leaving us with a palimpsest of history, something that would be unrecognizable by the authors of the earliest contributions.

In the end, this confusion is part and parcel of both history and faith. For the scholar, the Bible is a core sample reaching down through layers of time, taking away random bits of each era and bringing them up where we can examine them with our modern eyes; for the believer, the whole process, with all its twists and turns, is part of a divine plan, resulting in a finished product that could not have come into existence any other way.

My grandfather, a Baptist minister of the old hellfire and brimstone school, saw the Bible as the divine word, replete and eternal, but he was not afraid to ask questions, to dig into the maps and the scholarly concordances in search of context and perspective.

I, on the other hand, even without the added dimension of religious faith, can still appreciate the passion and devotion of the work, and from my own perspective, I don’t think it has to be the Good Book to still be a good book.


*Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin