Ozark Hillbillies? Hardly!

The Ozarks is a region of the North American continent that includes portions of five of the United States. It is defined both by geography and by culture. In terms of geographical features, the bulk of the region is in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, but it also includes the northeast corner of Oklahoma, a small section of the southeast corner of Kansas, and a sliver of southwestern Illinois along the Mississippi River. Most of the Ozarks is characterized by rolling hills and deep ravines or hollows, heavily forested in some areas and rich with rivers, creeks, and springs. It is a major portion of the U.S. Interior Highlands, and its features are the result of a deeply dissected plateau. It is a beautiful part of the country.

The geography of the Ozarks has had a significant influence on its culture, primarily because so much of the area was isolated from the more populous regions east of the Mississippi until the late 19th century. Although farming was and is difficult here because of the terrain and the rocky landscape, there has always been a strong connection to the land and rural living by its inhabitants. The major exception to this rule is the rapidly growing urban sprawl along a north-south corridor extending from Springfield, Missouri, down to the kingdom of Walmart and the flagship university in northwest Arkansas. In general, Ozarkers are fiercely independent and tend to distrust government. Much of the population is made up of white people of Scots-Irish descent who are religiously and politically conservative, especially in the more rural portions of the region.

Throughout much of the 20th century, the people of the Ozarks were represented in popular culture as poor, backward, shiftless, and uneducated. Similar to the inhabitants of parts of Appalachia, the Ozarkers were considered a bunch of hillbillies by the sophisticates of the east and west coast. Even in modern times, many Americans still think of the Ozarks as a place of mystery, perhaps dangerous. In books and movies, Ozarkers are usually poverty stricken, which in some cases is true. Those who have wealth acquire it through lawless activity. They are depicted as depraved folks delighting in illegal and deplorable lifestyles with virtually no moral compass. Netflix created a sensational and wildly popular series, Ozark, based on these stereotypes.

Not all Americans buy into this ridiculous assessment of the Ozarks, but it still prevails among many people in the country, mostly those who have never spent any time in the region. It is true that most Ozarkers have a rural mindset and still have an appreciation for simple pleasures like homegrown music, small-town festivals and fairs, church gatherings, school athletic events, and outdoor recreation like fishing and floating on rivers. But they are anything but lazy. It takes a lot of muscle and sweat to make a living in these hills, which helps explain the high rate of poverty. However, it is a mistake to assume Ozarkers are all a bunch of stupid, immoral hillbillies. Perhaps a few examples of some amazing people in the Ozarks provide the best evidence to make this case.

Tom Akers is from one of the poorest counties in the Ozarks, Shannon County, located in south central Missouri. He worked hard as a young man and earned a degree in mathematics from a branch campus of the University of Missouri in the Ozarks town of Rolla. He joined the U.S. Air Force, got his pilot’s license, and eventually decided to take a shot at becoming an astronaut with NASA. He became a mission specialist and logged an impressive number of space walks with the Shuttle program. His missions included deploying the Ulysses Spacecraft, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, repairing a satellite, and visiting the Mir Russian space station. He eventually moved into administration with NASA and became a spokesman for the administration. Not bad for an Ozark hillbilly, wouldn’t you say? I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Col. Akers for an oral history project and can personally attest to his intelligence, integrity, and character. Oh, and just for the record, the Hubble Space Telescope was named for the astronomer Edwin Hubble, who was also from the Ozarks in Marshfield, Missouri.

Col. Tom Akers
Col. Tom Akers

Pat Johnson went to the 1st through 8th grades in the 1950s at “Pocahontas Colored School,” a small, one-room structure in Pocahontas, Arkansas, on the eastern edge of the Ozarks. Ms. Eddie Mae Herron was the only teacher for that school and all its students for over 15 years. Pat recalls as a 10-year-old going with some of her white friends to a local ice cream store, but when she walked inside with them, the manager quickly approached her and told her she could not come in. She had to pick her ice cream up from the window outside. She went on to graduate from a high school in the next county. She wasn’t allowed to attend the segregated high school in Randolph County where she lived. Pat got married and started a family shortly after high school, going on to work in the local hospital and then later for a government agency in Pocahontas. In the late 1990s, she spearheaded an effort to preserve the old one-room schoolhouse. She garnered support from the city, the Chamber of Commerce, outside government agencies, and the community. Now, the fully-restored little school house is the Eddie Mae Herron Center & Museum, which brings together people of all races and ethnicities for educational, civic, and cultural programs. Pat Johnson is about as far away from being a hillbilly as I can imagine. She will be the first to say that she doesn’t really identify with the Ozarks region, because it has largely been unwelcoming to African Americans. But she has moved past that rejection to bring people together, regardless of the color of their skin, because she knows that communication is the key to acceptance and understanding.

Eddie Mae Herron Center
Eddie Mae Herron Center

Noel is a small township in McDonald County at the southwest corner of Missouri bordered by Arkansas and Oklahoma. In the late 1990s, Tyson Foods took over and expanded the operation of a poultry processing plant in Noel. To meet the demand for workers in this labor-intensive industry, Tyson began to recruit foreign-born people who would endure the grueling conditions in the plant for year-round employment and relatively good wages compared to seasonal migratory jobs. At first the non-native workers were exclusively Hispanic, but moving into the 21st century, Tyson began to employ immigrants and refugees from around the world including Central America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In a few short years, Noel’s population went from predominantly white to almost 50% nonwhite, which also introduced new and unfamiliar languages, religious practices, and cultural norms. These rapid changes strained the governmental and educational resources of the town. Some local leaders and many of the native inhabitants were less than welcoming to their new neighbors. The most disgruntled of the locals sold out and moved away to nearby towns or left the county altogether, which presented its own set of problems by lowering the tax base.

Fast forward twenty years and the situation is looking different and in a good way, thanks in large part to two community leaders who refused to give up on the town. Angie Brewer grew up near Noel. She moved to Texas with her first husband and started a family while working as an elementary school teacher. The marriage ended in divorce and Angie moved her children back home where she eventually remarried and became the principal of Noel Elementary School during the tumultuous period after the initial impact of the immigrant population shift. Angie and several of her close friends made an important and life-changing decision. They were going to buck the trend of distrust and alienation to live out the Christian faith they have claimed all their lives by loving their neighbors regardless of race, faith, or origin. They became social media soldiers, quickly shooting down disinformation and rumors about immigrants and refugees. They petitioned government and business leaders, including the suits at the Tyson home office, to assist in helping foreign-born families assimilate into the community. Officials at the county level obviously recognized Angie’s leadership efforts, promoting her to principal of McDonald County High School and Assistant Superintendent of the county school system. She has made a tremendous difference in the lives of so many students and parents, crushing the Ozark hillbilly stereotypes of isolationism, xenophobia, and even white supremacy.

Community Baptist Church, Noel, MO
Community Baptist Church, Noel, MO

Joshua Manning was working at Walmart in 2017 and contemplating becoming an overseas missionary when he was called to be the minister of a small Baptist church in Noel, not far from where he was born and raised in Southwest City. The congregation had dwindled to only a few families. They had no pastor. Many of the white members had abandoned the church and moved to other churches in the county during the drastic shift in the town’s racial and ethnic balance. And although Manning and his wife initially thought their time in Noel would be brief, they ended up finding an opportunity to share their faith and reach out to immigrants and refugees, giving them a place to gather and worship freely – a place where they are loved and welcome. Today, Community Baptist Church facilitates several different worship services in multiple languages. The church sponsors a food pantry and provides a variety of goods and services for anyone in the area in need. Manning is the first to admit that building this ministry has been a struggle and that Community Baptist is anything but a normal church. But he and his family have found their place of service and seem to be content. Rev. Joshua Manning’s moral compass points straight and true. Thankfully, there are many more like him and Col. Akers and Pat Johnson and Angie Brewer in the hills and “hollers” of the Ozarks.

We Are Way Overdue for Some Uncommon Sense

You have heard people say it many times. You have seen them express it or share it through memes on their social media feeds. Perhaps you have even said it too. I certainly have. The wording may vary, but the message is generally the same and takes the form of a mild insult. It usually goes something like this. “Some folks just don’t have any common sense.” There are variations of the statement, such as “They don’t even know how to come in out of the rain.” Sometimes it takes the form of a more serious complaint in reaction to some sweeping change or even in resistance to a crisis the society or even the world is facing. “What we need now more than ever is a little common sense.”

In my experience, people who most often observe a lack of common sense around them firmly believe, of course, that they are blessed with an abundance of the stuff. For some, it is simply a defense mechanism. For others, it is a point of pride, not to mention a sign of arrogance. Then there are people who take comfort in believing that book knowledge did not succeed in erasing their share of natural-born intelligence. In any case, we seem to crave common sense because we are convinced that it is the best solution to all our problems. I’m not so sure.

Looking back through human history, I am struck by how often uncommon sense helped our species survive, evolve, advance, and even thrive. Far too often, the call for common sense parallels a determination to maintain the status quo or even to regress from complexity to simplicity, usually for the sake of familiarity, security, or comfort. Admittedly, there are plenty of times when the simplest solution is the best alternative, but not always. I would argue that the bigger or more complicated the problem, the more likely it is that uncommon sense will fix it.

Common sense told early humans that fire is a destructive force that is extremely dangerous.
Uncommon sense showed them controlling fire provides warmth, light, protection, and a safe way to eat many types of food, especially meat.

Common sense told early civilizations that flooding rivers destroy crops.
Uncommon sense showed them that controlling floods with canals, berms, dikes, catch basins, and other measures can transform deserts into farmland.

Common sense told our ancient ancestors that the world was flat based on their limited perception of the planet.
Uncommon sense from astronomers of classical civilizations showed them that the earth is a sphere.

Well sure, you might say, it took innovation and critical thinking to advance civilization and create the modern world, but we live in the post-industrial age now. Nobody from the 21st century with any common sense would be fooled by legends of the Middle Ages, by quack medicine of centuries past, silly urban myths, or conspiracy theories, right? It never ceases to amaze me how people who are otherwise perfectly reasonable will adamantly choose to accept the simplest answer because it just makes sense to them – and nothing else does. “It’s just common sense,” they say. The level of their certainty is almost always directly linked to a personal stake they have in the matter: financially, politically, morally, etc. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The global population is faring better now than it ever has. Infant mortality rates continue to drop as life expectancy rises. Advances in medicine, agriculture, and technology are pulling more people out of poverty every day and improving their standard of living exponentially. However, we cannot ignore the real possibility of disastrous setbacks and worldwide threats to the future of humanity. And yet, that is exactly what so many of us are doing. We refuse to face serious challenges that will impact future generations, and are even causing major problems now, because doing so is inconvenient. We ignore the advice and warnings from some of the brightest minds in the world – the people with uncommon sense — choosing instead to follow our common sense, which can prove to be woefully inadequate.

Common sense tells us that we had an unusually cold winter; therefore, global warming is not real.
Uncommon sense has proven that average global temperatures continue to rise with devastating effects now and even worse to come.

Common sense tells us that weather is unpredictable and that temperatures have been rising and falling for thousands of years.
Uncommon sense demonstrates how carbon emissions and rising CO2 levels are rapidly changing our climate, which is different than weather.

Common sense tells us that if you don’t have symptoms, then you aren’t sick, can’t spread a virus, and don’t need to take precautions like wearing a mask or limiting social contact.
Uncommon sense proves that you can still spread a virus even though you have no symptoms, which makes fighting a pandemic even more difficult.

Common sense says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Uncommon sense knows that, by the time we realize it’s broken, it may be too late to fix it.

I truly value common sense. As individuals, it helps us navigate a dangerous world and keeps us safe, most of the time. True enough, some people are more skilled at developing and using it than others. As necessary as it is though, common sense has its limitations. The problem with common sense is, well, it’s common. It sets the bar rather low, especially when the challenges we face are far greater than we can handle on our own. Lately more than ever, I think we are way overdue for some uncommon sense.

Toward a Better Understanding of Our Species: A Reading List

Over the last few years, I have been on a binge reading books about the human species — everything from how we got here to where we might be going. These studies have explored topics such as evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, psychology, futurology, and perhaps a few other ologies I can’t identify. Mostly, these books have been enlightening, informative, and even entertaining at times. I decided to share some of my favorites here.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (audio version)

It takes a special talent to translate complicated scientific principles to lay readers like me. One of my favorite scientists who excelled at it was Carl Sagan, so it was no surprise to learn that Bill Nye was a student of Sagan. I have read and listened to many books through the years exploring the topic of evolution, and this is certainly one of the most accessible. The inspiration for this book comes from a debate the author had back in 2014 with Ken Ham, founder of the Young Earth creationists. He spends some time in the first part of the book presenting the major points he and Ham made in the debate, and he refers to the event on several occasions in subsequent chapters. In reality, the debate is just a launching point. Nye’s discussions mostly focus on science, leaving creationism in the dust.

Bringing to the table his skills as an entertainer, a television personality, and a fine writer, Bill Nye presents a fine overview of evolution — not just human evolution, but evolution of life on this planet and even speculation on how life may have evolved and may still be evolving elsewhere in the universe. Hearing him read his own book makes the narrative even more compelling, and his quirky sense of humor keeps it from getting dry or boring. Bill Nye is still making science fun! Highly recommended for readers who like popular science and aren’t looking for too much detail or depth.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel H. Lieberman

Lieberman takes a different approach to evolution and human origins than what I have seen thus far in most books. Using human evolutionary principles to explain the development of environmentally and socially induced medical problems turns out to be astounding, and for the most part, convincing. The author uses the latest fossil evidence to provide a chronicle of the development of modern humans, tracing our origins back to the earliest hominids and even more archaic common ancestors. Perhaps this discussion gets a bit too deep in the weeds for the ultimate purpose of the book, but I have always been interested in the topic and didn’t mind the extensive review. Readers who are short on time can probably skip the first section on human origins and still benefit from the rest of the book.

Lieberman uses terms like “mismatch” and “de-evolution” to explain how human culture, especially in affluent parts of the world, has facilitated ailments or diseases that are partially if not completely avoidable. As humans moved away from being hunters/gatherers to farmers and eventually industrialists, we developed some rather bad habits of excess and self-indulgence that our bodies have not evolved to handle very well. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, we have used our well-developed brains to create methods of treating the symptoms with varying degrees of success.

It seems to me that Lieberman’s observations are indisputable when he writes about unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles resulting in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Toward the end of the book he employs more speculation about issues such as overcrowded wisdom teeth, foot problems, and myopia, but even so these chapters are thought-provoking and carefully explored. Lastly, Lieberman is another good writer and joins the league of scientists who can make complex subjects accessible for lay people. Well done.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

If there were one word to best describe Sapolsky’s book in my mind, it would have to be “thorough.” Okay, “long” would work too, but that would make me sound like a simpleton. Truthfully, there were times during this book that I felt like one. Sapolsky spends a good portion of his book explaining how the various systems of the human body work in concert to shape our behavior: the brain, hormones, sensory organs, nerves, etc. For the lay reader, the detailed descriptions of the brain’s components alone, with their complicated functions and not-so-familiar names, are challenging enough. Then again, we are warned by the subtitle that this is a book of biology. Sapolsky provides more neuroscience than most of us probably need in order to accept his conclusions about how the body, right down to the molecular level, functions with our environment, circumstances, and experiences to make us behave or misbehave. Honestly, at times it gets a bit laborious.

The author’s amount of documentation is staggering. He addresses a host of other scientists and social scientists whose research in human behavior parallels his own, and I think his treatment of them is respectful and fair, even though he may disagree with their findings. He is also never short on evidence and examples to substantiate his own findings, sometimes to a fault. He has a tendency to repeat historical events to support his claims, such as the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers or the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Getting to the heart of this book is difficult without resorting to cliché and oversimplification. By the time I finished, I had decided that human behavior is complicated and that there are far too many internal and external factors involved to come up with a unified theory on why we do what we do. Evolution, genes, DNA, secretions, and synapses all play their part, but they are no more essential in our actions than upbringing, peer pressure, education, traditions, and a whole host of outside influences. Our behavior is shaped as much by what happened to our hominid ancestors thousands of years ago as it is by what happened to us an hour before we committed some act of compassion or cruelty. On a grand scale, our behavior as a species is somewhat predictable. On an individual level, not so much.

This is a book worth reading, even though it will occupy many hours of your time. Aside from the science and psychology, it’s entertaining. Sapolsky is quite funny, blending in pop culture references, occasional profanity, and good old clever wit. He has a talent for breaking down intricate scientific principles with common, everyday illustrations to which almost anyone can relate. For those who have a serious interest in this area of study, Behave is worth the time. I predict it will be an important addition to the scholarship for years to come.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

It is clear from early on in his book that Lents has a side motive in this study, which is to dispel the myth of intelligent design in biology, specifically human biology. The paraphrased common refrain throughout the book is “if you were an engineer tasked with designing the human body, this is not the most efficient means by which to achieve the goal.” One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the assortment of problems humans have as a result of not yet fully evolving to upright, bi-pedal locomotion. Many of our joints and bones are subject to easier injury. Our sinuses try to defy gravity by draining upward instead of downward. And then there is the deadliest problem of all — women trying to give birth to infants with big heads through a narrow pelvis.

Although the author focuses on human “errors,” he also mentions when other species do or do not share our evolutionary challenges. Readers are given detailed explanations of issues associated with vision, swallowing and breathing through the same tube, diet, vitamin production, reproduction, immunity, and even cognition and social interaction. He will perhaps lose a few readers toward the end of the book when he explores the prospect of immortality, which delves a bit deeply into the speculative.

As other scientists have observed (like Lieberman above), Lents argues that modern technology and especially modern medical advances have made, and will continue to make, evolutionary adaptations unnecessary, thus altering the “survival of the fittest” model of passing on genes from one generation to the next. I suspect the jury is still out on whether or not that modification will be beneficial to our species in the long run.

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper

I have read other books about people with extraordinary abilities (memory, strength, musical talent, etc.), but Hooper covers a range of amazing traits and characteristics, some of which are not so mysterious but nevertheless admirable. He includes individuals who have faced incredible injury, disability, and other challenges with remarkable grace and joy. He even explores what it means to be happy. I found the chapter on sleep and dreams the most fascinating of all. It’s an uplifting exploration of humanity and the potential of our species.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Speaking of sleep, here’s a book that received considerable attention in the media. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Why We Must Sleep. Adding “dreams” in the subtitle is almost a ruse to attract more readers, but we can give Walker a break here – he does include a discussion on dreams, but it is not even close to being the main attraction. Nor should it be. This book explores the necessity of sleep while explaining in detail its different phases and their importance. The author freely admits in the opening pages that he loves sleep, and he has obviously devoted his career to the study of it, not just in humans, but many species.

The overwhelming conclusion is that sleep is not an option nor a luxury. It is absolutely essential to survival. Perhaps most of us could have guessed that, but Walker presents us with an ocean of data to prove it and drive the point home convincingly. There are some fascinating stories in this book about sleep research that most of us have never dreamed of (sorry), and again, not just on humans.

The major takeaway from the book is simple. In order to remain healthy and happy, people need to be consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night (9 hours wouldn’t hurt, but don’t go far beyond that threshold). Walker argues, not always convincingly but most of the time, that sleep deprivation can harm us in almost every way we can fathom — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I expected him at any moment to write, “You know that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering you for the last few weeks?”

Anybody who cares anything at all about general health and how to improve it should read this book. Of course, anyone interested in sleep has to read it. I can’t imagine a more thorough study of the subject for a popular audience. Fair warning: Walker is a scientist and a purist. He is laying out the facts to the best of his knowledge, which is extensive. There is no sensible approach or moderation, no wiggle room. If you want the very best sleep, and by extension the best health, you have to give up everything that hinders sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, jobs that interfere with sleep schedules, late-night activities, etc. And don’t even think about sleeping pills! Therapy is the ONLY answer to sleeping disorders. This level of slumber austerity is going to be rejected by most people, but at least we can be better aware of how important sleep is to our well-being and do our best to get a little, or a lot, more shut eye.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

I know this book gets dinged by reviewers for some outrageous claims, unsubstantiated conclusions, and superficial treatment of 100,000 years worth of history. Much of the criticism is warranted. For instance, one of Harari’s recurring suppositions is that humans from the past, although they lived in more hostile environments, were no less “happy” than people in modern civilization. This revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise if we consider that humans can only truly appreciate the living conditions of the present, not the future. Most of us are content with our world as it is because it is all we know.

Still, Harari is a good writer with some thought-provoking theories. He charts the process of how our modern species won the evolutionary competition to become the dominant primate and eventually reshape the global environment. At times he pushes the iconoclastic approach a bit too far in order to ramp up the buzz factor, and thus more readers. Based on the sales, his strategy worked. Academic historians are not going to be pleased, and critical readers of history will probably be disappointed. Popular audiences have enjoyed it immensely, and that’s fine. Most readers will take away a few fascinating nuggets from this ambitious survey of human history.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 

Harari waits until the very end of his book to tell readers that the previous 450 pages of forecasting are not really a prophesy, only an exploration of possibilities. Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous, but many of them are certainly plausible. The discussion of a hybrid creature combining human and machine that could possibly surpass homo sapiens to become the dominant species is not so far fetched. Interestingly, Harari spends an unusual amount of time near the beginning of the book writing about religion and its impact on human evolution and modern society, which may explain the title. It’s almost as if this could be two different books. The only place that the book became tiresome for me was the final chapter on data. If I had to classify it, I would describe Homo Deus as speculative nonfiction. I think his previous book, Sapiens, is more important. If we don’t take it too seriously, Homo Deus is a fun and intriguing read.

Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)

My Introduction to Los Angeles

A professional conference this year gave me an occasion to visit Los Angeles for the first time. Although I have been to California twice, I never traveled farther south than Big Sur. I arrived in L.A. two days before my conference began to take in a bit of sightseeing. Like Las Vegas and New York, Los Angeles is an iconic city that is closely tied to the uninhibited side of America, where everything is out of the cage and off the pavement. It attracts huge money, which is shamelessly exhibited in fast cars, flashy clothes, ostentatious jewelry, and mansions that could easily command their own zip codes. Usually we associate the “La-La Land” factor of the city with some of the more affluent sections and suburbs: Beverly Hills, Malibu, Santa Monica, Burbank, Hidden Hills, and Bel Air. However, there is more to Los Angeles than glitter and gold.

The afternoon I arrived, I rented a car and made the short drive down to Huntington Beach, the place where Duke Kahanamoku popularized surfing in the 1920s and graced the town with the title “Surf City.” The wind was especially strong while I was there, so walking out to the end of the long pier to circle Ruby’s Surf City Diner was rather brutal. The reward was witnessing first-hand the largest waves I have ever seen — much higher than those on the Florida coast to which I am accustomed. My visit was capped off perfectly with a few cocktails at the Barefoot Bar of Duke’s Huntington Beach Restaurant while I watched the Pacific sun set, a spectacle that never gets old.

Sunset at Huntington Beach
Sunset at Huntington Beach

 

View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory
View of L.A. from Griffith Observatory

Early the next morning, I drove to the hills just north of Los Angeles to check out the Griffith Observatory. Whenever I travel, I am always in search of vantage points that will offer jaw-dropping vistas, which led me to this location. I was not disappointed. In addition to a close-up view of the famous “HOLLYWOOD” sign, the hill-top site provides near-360-degree scenery featuring the nearby green hillsides, the surrounding neighborhoods, and the skyline of the city in the distance. What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy the Observatory itself, which serves as a museum of astronomy. From the Fresco painted ceiling above the Foucault Pendulum at the entrance to the wonderful exhibits featuring the sun, other stars, the moon, and planets, the Griffith Observatory is a must-do for anyone who appreciates the mysteries of space. I was particularly impressed to see that a theater in the Observatory is named after the late Leonard Nimoy, the talented actor who portrayed Mr. Spock from the Star Trek television series and movies. He and his wife, actress Susan Bay-Nimoy, made a generous gift for the expansion and renovation of the Observatory. I always liked Nimoy as an actor and an artist, but learning about his philanthropy made me admire him even more.

Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory
Solar system exhibit in the Griffith Observatory

My next stop was the place that most vividly puts the tinsel in this town. Still recognized by many as the shrine of the entertainment industry, Hollywood covers three and a half square miles of prime commercial real estate in central L.A. Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard is an experience that can be recreated nowhere else in the country. The star-studded Walk of Fame stretches for fifteen blocks and is likely the most dangerous sidewalk in California because most people are looking at the ground the whole time they’re strolling along. Tourists also have near collisions with each other in front of the famous Chinese Theatre, where legends of film and television have literally left their mark with hand and footprints in the large cement blocks in the forecourt. Hollywood & Highland Center is a busy multi-story shopping complex that includes the Dolby Theatre, home of the Academy Awards. Of course, there are plenty of retailers, restaurants, specialty shops, and tourism stands up and down the street. Most impressive to me were the historic facades of the classic old theaters along both sides of the Boulevard — El Capitan, Egyptian, Pantages, and Pacific — they recall the golden age of film from the early to mid-20th century. It is easy to imagine what a glamorous time it must have been. Yes, Hollywood Boulevard would have to be classified as a tourist trap, but how can you visit L.A. for the first time and skip this legendary feature of the city?

Hollywood Boulevard
Hollywood Boulevard

Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center
Bougainvillea arbors at the Getty Center

My last stop of the day was the Getty Center of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Situated on a 24-acre hill-top campus, the Getty Center is a remarkable combination of art, architecture, and nature overlooking greater metropolitan Los Angeles and Santa Monica Bay. The views of the city and the ocean from the various porticoes, terraces, and gardens are unbelievable. The collection, changing exhibitions, and outdoor art on view at the Getty Center reach across European and American history—from medieval times to the present. I was particularly delighted by the central garden, which boasts more than 500 species. The 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway. A stream that winds through a variety of plants gradually descends to a plaza where bougainvillea arbors explode into bloom. I rushed through several of the galleries in the complex of buildings but was only able to get a taste of this astonishing cultural wonder. I hope to return to the Getty again someday to enjoy much more of what it has to offer, and when I do, I am sure there will be plenty of other treasures to explore in “The town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula” — The City of Angels.

Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center
Museum Courtyard at the Getty Center

The Omega Point: Where Science and Religion Converge

I just finished reading The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is the fourth book I have read by Taylor, and although it is not her best-known work, I think this short essay collection is very fine. Admittedly, my praise of the book comes out of my deep interest in the intersection (or polarization) of science and religion. Most scientists will not find it as compelling as those who are sympathetic to religious belief or even spirituality. Published in 2000, the book is perhaps somewhat dated now, but the principle thesis and the keen observations are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest and a professor of religion with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history, going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Rev. Dr. Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method.  She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have been reading popular books on science and religion for about thirty years. I am drawn to authors who tend to challenge or even shatter long-held assumptions about religion, mainly Christianity since that is the faith of my heritage. In addition to Barbara Brown Taylor, a few that come to mind are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart D. Ehrman, Philip Gulley, and James Mulholland. In recent years I have also been reading books by the modern atheists and humanists, like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greg M. Epstein, Edward O. Wilson, Eugenie C. Scott, and Jerry A. Coyne. All of these writers have addressed the friction created where science and religion meet.

I certainly have issues with organized religion, although I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I am repelled by evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist factions across the globe, radical sects of all faiths, and any religious practice that results in division, discrimination, sexism, racism, and superiority. At the same time, I cannot agree with some of the modern atheists who have decided that all religion is superstitious nonsense with no purpose, no value to humanity. Some of these scholars claim that religion is not just a benign fantasy but a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity.  To judge religion based on the manner in which it is too often adulterated by immoral clergy, zealots, dictators, and politicians, to my way of thinking, is similar to faulting science when technology is used by power-hungry leaders to make weapons of mass destruction.

Some scientists posit that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, science has been rapidly replacing religion as a unified explanation for all existence. In other words, we don’t need religion anymore. As much as Dawkins and others have tried to make the case of science’s ability to answer all our questions, I believe there will always be significant gaps. My argument for the existence and validity of religion is primarily built on its longevity, that it has been a hallmark of hominids at least as far back as the Neanderthals. Evolutionary theory teaches us that nature selects what will and will not survive based on characteristics such as fitness, adaptability, necessity, and the ability to pass on vital information from one generation to the next.  It works for genes, language, technology, and yes, religion. Humans have passed down faith and myth for thousands of years, not because they are entertained by them, but because they need them.

As contemplative animals who are consciously aware of their existence, their past, and their possible future, humans have evolved a thirst for answers to questions about our place in the universe, how it all began, and the meaning of life. But, we also need a practice to help us appreciate and absorb emotion, beauty, and a whole host of other experiences. Sometimes science falls short, not because of what is yet undiscovered, but because so many people need the most treasured part of life to remain a mystery. Is religion nothing more than a panacea? Is it “the opium of the people” as Karl Marx observed? Is it a vestige that we will eventually slough off like dead skin? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that we will see that next stage in our evolutionary development nearly as soon as some of our atheist friends are predicting.

Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting.

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The Sky Is Falling

World leaders are meeting for the next week or so in Paris to discuss ways in which the major countries around the globe can reduce carbon emissions in hopes of warding off catastrophic effects from global warming.  How serious this problem is has become a topic of “heated” debate in this country, just like almost everything else, from Starbucks holiday coffee cups to Syrian refugees coming to America.  A handful of scientists (about 3% worldwide) are not convinced that the current climate changes we are experiencing are caused by human activity, which is all the evidence needed to call the whole idea a scam by a growing minority of people in this country who completely distrust any message coming from the federal government or the research of individuals, institutions, agencies, and organizations funded by federal tax dollars.  They are convinced that restrictions imposed by governments due to climate change will result in onerous taxes, economic ruin, burdensome regulations, dictatorial bureaucrats, and higher energy costs.

It would appear that the denial of climate change issues has moved into the realm of conspiracy theory.  Some of my friends argue that scientists are lying and falsifying data to appeal to liberal policy makers who pay them and who seek even further control over our lives and property.  They point to the changes in terminology — moving away from phrases like global warming and toward phrases like climate change — as an indication that the science is not solid and that climatologists are not to be trusted.   Here’s a flash.  What we are seeing around the planet IS global warming, but we have folks who can’t understand that global warming is NOT a term to describe weather.  There is a difference between climate and weather, so the vocabulary was modified in an attempt to increase understanding about the problem, which obviously failed.

Frankly, I don’t feel qualified to speak too much about climate change from a scientific standpoint, so I have to trust the consensus of opinion of the majority of climatologists around the world, just like I feel compelled to trust the vast majority of doctors who believe immunization is more helpful than harmful. I could list many other examples. I can remember a time when conservatives thought that recycling was a trick on dumb liberals, that is, until they discovered there is plenty of money to be made in the recycling business. Then it became desirable. I suspect we will eventually see this same pattern evolve with the reduction of carbon emissions, sustainable energy sources, and other similar initiatives.  I believe in being skeptical, but skepticism on the level of global scientific opinion of such a large majority seems unreasonable.

The Undeniable Evidence for Evolution

When I am asked if I “believe” in evolution, as I have been many times in my life, I am somewhat at a loss with how to respond.  To believe in evolution implies that there is some level of faith required to accept that life on earth changes in order to adapt to the environment and to increase the chances of surviving and reproducing.  The evidence for such adaptation is so abundant that, to my way of thinking, denying it would require an extraordinary suspension of observation and reasoning.

Of course, I am keenly aware that when I am asked this question, the real query is “Do you believe that human beings evolved from lower life forms?” or the less- intelligent and poorly-informed version, “Do you believe we came from monkeys?”  The answer to the former would be an unequivocal YES, and the answer to the latter would be an equally emphatic NO.  Anyone who has taken an elementary course in biology knows the difference between those two premises, so I won’t bother with the distinctions.

I suspect the people who have the most difficult time accepting evolution as a scientific theory that explains so much about life on this planet are those who cling to religious beliefs that somehow run contrary to the evidence.  This conflict is especially true for people of faith who maintain a literal interpretation of ancient, sacred texts such as the Bible or the Koran.  Evangelicals in America are so bound to their worldview of creationism by the hand of God that they will not allow themselves to be swayed by rationalism or overwhelming evidence.  I have even met scientists, teaching in universities, who cannot fully embrace human evolution as a fact because of their religious convictions.  The pressure to conform to supernatural explanations of natural phenomenon must be enormous.

Is it fear that prompts such denial?  Pride?  Does science pose such a threat to faith that adherents impose barriers to the most obvious truths rather than accept and embrace them?  I am absolutely baffled by people who can choose to believe the supernatural over the natural.

You Can’t Run Away from a Bad Diet

For years my wife has been telling me that, while she knows we need to exercise for our health and well-being, exercise won’t help her shed the pounds she wants to lose (she doesn’t have that much to shed truly).  I have always resisted her on this point, thinking that burning off calories with vigorous exercise has to eventually result in weight loss.  While that still may be true with a sensible diet, the fact remains that exercise without cutting back portions and watching the amount of calories and fat we take in will not result in any serious weight loss.  Such are the findings of a team of British cardiologists in a recent study, which they explain in an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  In essence, they are claiming that even though regular exercise reduces the risk of developing a number of health issues such as heart disease, dementia, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t promote weight loss.

Once again, my wife is smarter than I.  This information that she knew and that I was slightly skeptical about is even more troubling for her than it is for me because she also knows that, as we both age, her metabolism as a woman slows down at a much faster rate than mine does as a man.  This means that I can take in more calories than she, and with everything else being equal, my weight remains stable.  No, it certainly isn’t fair and is another example of how women get the shaft from nature.  I’m not so concerned about how my wife’s body looks (well, yes it does matter, but it isn’t my main concern), but I do want her to be healthy and well as we march toward retirement in the next ten years.  I am convinced that avoiding obesity is essential in achieving that goal, for both of us.  Beyond that extreme though, I hope we can both eat well, exercise regularly, and maintain our fitness as we age so we can enjoy that retirement by traveling around and exploring, relatively free of pain and with as much physical flexibility and stability as possible.