Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Conversations with The Girl

Lessons with The Girl often start in one place and end up somewhere unexpected. For last night’s lesson, we talked about when humans first turned from being foragers to farmers, and how that changed everything. For one thing, I told her, they could get a lot more calories from fields of grains than from a forest, meaning they could have more babies and multiply, meaning they could cut down more forest and sow more grain, and multiply more. Do you know what that is?

“A Red Queen?” she asked.

Good, I said – why?

“Well, they would need to grow more crops to stay fed, and then more and more – all just to keep staying alive.”

That’s very good, I said – you’re right, it was a Red Queen. I hadn’t even thought about that, I said. That wasn’t the answer I was going for specifically, but you’re in the right area.

Exponential growth!” she moaned. “I hate it!

Their growth might well have been exponential, I said – ours is. I was specifically looking for ‘positive feedback loop,’ but your answers were also good. Another important thing was that the first and most important crops were grains, and what can you do with grains? “You can make bread,” The Girl said. “And beer…”

Good, I said – and you can store them, and some people can acquire a lot more than others. For the first time, you had wealth, with a small number of people being rich and most people being poor. It also meant that everyone’s life depended on the weather, so over time it became certain people’s jobs to please the gods or predict the future – priests. Eventually you start seeing statues and monuments.

“Did they think the statues were gods?” The Girl asked. “Because they carved them themselves, and it would be strange to think you could make a god.” Well, maybe they used them as symbols of their god, like the statues in our church. Or perhaps the priests made it look like they were moving and talking.

“Like in that one village Mary and Joseph visited!” she said, remembering a story we read from one of the lesser-known gospels.

Let me pause a moment to explain that last part. We often think of the Bible as a single document, but its stories and poems accumulated over many centuries, and its table of contents has changed many times. Many books that were once included in the Bible, at least by someone, were dropped for some reason, including most of the few dozen gospels. Certainly the gospel we read – the wonderfully-named Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour – seems to have been first-century Jesus fan-fiction. They make for interesting stories, though, and I read them to The Girl in that spirit.

The story she mentioned featured Mary and Joseph after they fled from Herod, and were riding across the desert with the baby Jesus. Strangely like the 70s television show Kung Fu, they meet a new group of bizarre characters each episode, and usually ends with the baby Jesus making something supernatural happen. In one section they met the young thieves who would later be crucified on either side of Jesus; in another a man who had been magically changed into a donkey, and in another some dragons. No, seriously, they meet dragons.

In one episode, they come to a village where everyone serves the priests of an angry god, a giant statue that talks to them. The statue turns out to be the priests climbing inside the statue and shouting in a deep voice, terrifying the villagers like the Great and Powerful Oz. Of course, the baby Jesus makes the statue talk without them, and the priests flee in fear.

That’s absolutely right, I told The Girl. If people wrote that story, they probably knew of real examples like it. That kind of thing probably happened all the time.

“Are there people who still believe things like that?” The Girl asked. Like what? I asked. “Well, people who believe that the statues are talking to them,” she said, “and who do what the statues tell them to do.”

Sure, we have things like those statues today, I told her -- and many people in the world do whatever they say. They’re called televisions.

* My favourite book, for example, is the Book of Wisdom, which appears only in Catholic Bibles. The oft-cited “Ten Commandments” are usually the line-up for Protestants, not Catholics or Jews, and even then are only one of several contradictory lists from different sections. Even in last few centuries books have appeared and disappeared; when Mary Tudor burned two bishops alive in 1555 for following Martin Luther, they went to their deaths quoting from the book of Esdras -- which is not, ironically, in Protestant Bibles any more. Many of the dozens of gospels, likewise, tell some fascinating stories not included in the four Nicene ones -- whether or not you think they are "real."


Dan said...

I must disagree with the forager-farmer difference. By farming, people would get a higher yield and not necessarily more dependent on weather. They would spend less time looking for food and spend more time on other activities.

Brian Kaller said...


I agree that farmers spent less time looking for food -- which is why foragers never built cities or temples. I would say, though, that foragers could get food from a variety of sources no matter the weather, whereas farmers are more locked in to the future of their crop. I suppose a lot depends on the circumstances, and of course people don't have to be just one or the other.