Back in August I wrote a post anticipating my meeting with Lucy. Well, that day has come and gone. A few weeks back I packed the wife and kid in the car and drove them to Houston to see the exhibition. I was impressed. In addition to Lucy, they had a number of skulls from various hominid species, some I hadn't even heard of. Granted, just about all I know on the subject comes from Donald Johanson's book, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Johanson is the guy who discovered Lucy back in 1974.
The book contains this chart:
It shows Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy's species) as a common ancestor to two branches of the hominid tree. The genus Australopithecus continues to include the species africanus and robustus and the genus Homo breaks off and includes the species habilis, erectus and sapien. The chart also shows that the genus Australopithecus went extinct a little over a million years ago.
The book discussed several other species as well, but those listed on this chart were the ones I remembered most vividly after finishing the book. The problem was, the book was published around 1980 and hadn't been updated. Therefore it didn't contain discoveries made in the past 25 years. So you can only imagine how fascinated I was when I got to the museum and saw a chart that looked more like this:
To my delight, it contained three new genera: Ardipithecus, Kenyanthropus and Paranthropus. Obviously the number of species had grown as well.
The book discussed the controversies that invariably arise when it's time to name a new genus or species. The controversy usually isn't so much about what to call it, but whether it's truly distinct from one already acknowledged. Needless to say, distinguishing where one ends and another begins can be tricky and paleoanthropologists don't often agree. As a result, there's not always consensus and a skull might go by two or three names depending on the academic holding it.
The Institute for Human Origins has an incredible interactive documentary on its website called Becoming Human. If you launch the documentary, click on "Lineages," then click on "The Human Family Tree" you can then select the name of an academic and the tree will highlight their theory. It's pretty amazing.
At any rate, the exhibition was wonderful.
So last night I found myself back at the museum in Houston, this time by myself, holding a ticket to hear Donald Johanson speak. The lecture was conducted in the museum's IMAX theater. He spoke for nearly an hour and a half and presented slides on the giant screen. Me and about 400 other nerds sat enraptured the entire time. We were the lucky ones. I was told by one of the staff that the lecture had sold out almost immediately (I got my ticket on September 7) and that tickets were being scalped online for up to $400!
After the lecture I had a chance to meet Johanson and tell him how great it was to hear about all that's happened in the field since his book was published. He then told me he's currently working on a book to be published in a little over a year that'll pick up where the last one left off. Hurray!
In case you've missed the news this week... Lucy, everyone's favorite Australopithecus afarensis, is visiting Texas now through April!
I now regret throwing out my Physical Anthropology notes from college. Well, maybe not; 98% of the lectures were about my professor's unfortunate working relationship with and absolute disdain for rhesus monkeys. A typical page of notes from that class would read something like, "Bad monkey. Bad, bad monkey.... Caution: Don't wear Prada to the lab." I remember I took the class because it fulfilled a science requirement. I figured the subject's overlap with archeology would be right up my alley. Turned out the intro course I took dealt more with DNA than digs. But I digress.
The news about Lucy's arrival to the United States spread nationwide. When I learned she was bound for The Houston Museum of Natural Science on the radio this morning, I nearly ran my truck off the road. Once I got to work, I started flipping through my calendar to find a free day. My last trip to the museum was unforgettable... I got within inches of Lady Puabi's Headdress and other artifacts from Sir Charles Leonard Woolley's excavations of Ur. Ten years prior, I'd taken an archeology course from the great excavator and translator of ancient stadium graffiti, Mark E. Landon. Among our assigned readings was Woolley's book The Sumerians. The book contained black & white plates of many of his discoveries from Ur. To finally see the treasures in all their gold and lapis brilliance nearly brought tears to my eyes. Mrs. T and my Evil Little Brother, on the other hand, couldn't stop talking about the Body Worlds exhibition downstairs.
The official title of this new exhibition is Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. What makes this so incredible is that not only will Lucy be there, but also artifacts from Axum. My knowledge of ancient Ethiopia and the Solomonic line of emperors is quite cursory. A few years back I read through the Kebra Nagast along with a handful of critical articles on Oriental Orthodoxy, the historical roots of Rasta and the concept of Tewahedo (which at first glance might be wrongly construed as Unitarian.) I don't know if I should be embarrassed by this, but it wasn't the ganj that piqued my interest in the subject. Rather, I was exploring the the fall-out of a schism that occurred after some rough and tumble Christological debates at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Like I said though, I didn't delve as deeply as I could have. But now that Lucy has embarked on a good-will tour in Texas, I feel compelled to read up on her home country's history a bit more before heading out to meet her.
Jesus for the Non-Religious
by John Shelby Spong
Last weekend Mrs. T invited over a couple of her Japanese girlfriends for lunch. One was married to an American and had a little boy, Bobcat, just a couple of months older than the Acolyte. The other had an American steady. They were all here. As the girls chatted away at the kitchen table and the kids wrestled in the play yard, I was left to entertain two guys who I didn't know very well. I felt compelled to conjure a conversation topic that would interest all three of us. Although all our partners were Japanese, I'm the only one that spent much time over there, so that was off the table. Only one of the guys was a dad, so issues of fatherhood wouldn't be of much interest to the third guy. But I was saved, in part, by a little knick-knack that sits proudly in my living room:
It's a prototype of an All Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT) walker toy that I received last Christmas from my parents. One of their friends was an executive at Kenner back in the day and he gave this to them to give to me. I love Star Wars, as most American men between the ages of 25-40 do, but I'm not a rabid fan that feels the need to role-play or attend comic conventions. (Though I will admit, I'm anxious to see this summer's release of Fanboys.)
At any rate, my AT-AT caught their attention and they asked me if I was a big fan. I explained that I enjoyed the movies--have the original three episodes memorized like any normal American and have the Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, DVD version-- but otherwise I wouldn't rank myself at "Fan" status. "What about your posters?", one inquired.
"Well, the one that hangs in our den is from an exhibition held at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum back in 1997-99. I know it reads 1997-1998, but it was extended a few months into 1999. Mrs. T and I went there when we were still engaged....
As for the seven that hang in my office, they're really more of a reflection of my irrational fixation on the defunct fast food franchise, Burger Chef. All seven were distributed by Burger Chef and they're part of my Burger Chef Reliquary."
Then the other guy asked, "Well what about Yoda and that case of vintage figures up in your library?"
I made it clear that I could see the threshold of Star Wars fandom, but I had not crossed it. Disappointment set in on the guys. Turns out, one of these guys does actually role-play and has his own homemade costumes. The other guy, while not a fan, thought the idea of costume parties was pretty cool. I can't express the relief I felt. Neither of these guys was going to draw a negative judgment on the fact I had eight Star Wars posters hanging in my house. In fact, it created a sense of camaraderie. I began to relax and we had quite an enjoyable conversation that meandered from one topic to the next. Somehow we ended up talking about the Mormons, we all agreed that most of the Mormons we've known live what they preach. I for one have a deep appreciation for the Mormon faith. I don't let their doctrine bother me much. In my opinion, Jesus appearing in the States is no more fanciful than Moses parting the Red Sea.
Our discussion on Mormons soon expanded to Christianity in general. Turns out, both guys were also committed Christians, and one was even a preacher's kid like myself. Just like yours truly, this guy struggled with maintaining his faith while not wanting to relinquish his faculties of reason and the knowledge humanity has acquired during the two millennia since Jesus strolled the streets of podunk Nazareth. It came as no surprise to me. Us preachers kids have a tendency to doubt and challenge. Tori Amos, whose dad was a Methodist preacher, is a perfect example. We're often raised in an intellectual environment, but then thrown completely irrational doctrine and told to "Trust and Obey." Some folks continue on a life-long struggle seeking a balance between faith and reason. Some conclude that religion and science are two different realms of the human experience and that faith and reason are appropriate in their own realm. Others assume they must choose between one or the other and become completely secular or a fundamentalist. But there is a third alternative. It's a concept that's still in gestation, but already has transformed my approach to the divine.
I should first make a quick disclaimer. This alternative requires that you do some homework. There are some facts that have been taught in Christian seminaries across the world, but don't always make it to the pulpit on Sunday mornings. In the past 200 years, biblical scholarship has generated a tremendous wealth of knowledge about the life, language and influences of the folks living during the formation of the Christian canon and the societies they lived in. A tiny fraction of this knowledge is shared with seminarians during their studies, and often it shakes them to their spiritual core. Why? Because the facts don't always mesh with what they were taught in Sunday School. Seminaries teach future pastors and theologians to question every Sunday School felt board presentation they ever sat through as a child, the very foundation upon which they built their faith. There is nothing new about applying modern scientific approaches to the study of the Bible. There's nothing heretical about it either, seminaries have been doing it for generations. The problem lies in the churches' inability to adapt to this new knowledge and present it to the laity in a way that won't cause a schism.
Thoughtful theologians have worked for years trying to understand the historical, multi-faceted man named Jesus. By that they mean Jesus, the guy, whose followers were so moved in his presence that within a generation they spread across the known world bearing witness. The most current embodiment of this study is conducted by The Jesus Seminar. The seminar is conducted by a host of theologians from various faith backgrounds. Its ecumenical spirit, open-mindedness and transparent process stand in stark contrast to the church councils of old.
I can't begin to address the numerous conclusions recent biblical scholarship has led to here. For one, this post is already too long. But more sincerely, the introduction of this material can be a sensitive matter and is best delivered in a patient and structured manner (two qualities I lack.) Thirdly, someone else has already done so.
In his book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Bishop Jack Spong introduces the layman to what many a seminarian had to face during their studies. This one book captures the essence of first year Old and New Testament classes. I read this years ago and still believe it's one of the best introductions to critical biblical scholarship. I strongly recommend it.
But like I said, it's just an introduction. As comforting and optimistic as his tone may be, when you're done you can't help but feel that he's run your faith through a meat-grinder. The book leaves you begging for direction. Spong admitted recently that at the time he wrote this book, he too struggled with how to proceed. In fact, like I stated above, the church itself is struggling with how to proceed.
Over the past fifteen years I've continued on my spiritual journey, and so has Spong. He's written other books since, but for the most part they were topical, investigating particular sections of the Bible more deeply (similar to advanced courses you'd find in a seminary.) They didn't offer much additional guidance though. Just last month he released a new book entitled Jesus for the Non-Religious. At last, in this book, he moves beyond deconstructing faith and begins to define a way in which Christianity can survive in the 21st century without offending or causing us to deny our post-modern sensibilities.