I was happily and innocently perusing my RSS feed when I came across a piece of information which made me simultaneously think of Mary Doria Russell’s THE SPARROW, Ken Follett’s THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH and the cinematic event “Borat.” “How is that possible?” you might ask. (check the link out)
We, humans, have always had the need to believe in something greater, something outside ourselves. The gigantic earthworks in Kazakhstan are just one of the many examples. There are the Nazca drawings, the Easter Island moais, earth- and stoneworks over much of Britain, and, closer to home, the Watson Brake mounds in Louisiana dating back to 3,500 BCE. And many more. Today, we think of those cultures as primitive and their belief systems as naive or, worse yet, cute and innocent.
That’s because we know better, right? We know gods don’t live in caves or thunder, and we would certainly not waste our time and health erecting 100-ton effigies to ancestral deities. Imagine coming across an average guy and discovering he’s been working for the past 20 years on putting gigantic rocks in a circle in his back yard, by hand and with no modern tools, to vie for the favor of his dead grand-aunt in providing him with rain; you’d expect institutionalization to follow rapidly. “It’s for good old Ralph’s own good, poor, poor fellow,” you might remark. And we would all nod, “Yes, he hasn’t been right since his wife died,” or “gotta be the brain damage from that Punkin Chunkin accident,” or “psst, this whole family’s always been off the rails.”
In THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, Ken Follett tells the story of passion, ambition and devotion surrounding the construction of a great Gothic cathedral. In the story, as in the actual 12th-century England, most people do not live in opulence and they’re lucky if they have enough to eat, and yet no one there questions the need for the grandeur. A house of God must be worthy of its tenant. If you’re paying attention, you might say at about this time, “Hey! Not fair! That was, like 800 years ago.” True. This is now. And this. And this. (If you can visit Sagrada Familia, you must – it leaves a life-long impression.) The point is, we are still at it. The need remains. They might no longer be monkey drawings the size of Manhattan, but our works to express our desire to be closer to the divine are no less grand. So, don’t knock the monkey artists or the monolith erectors.
THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite books of all time. How can it not be? It’s Jesuits in outer space! (Michel Faber’s more recent THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS is a treatment of some of the similar themes, and is also worth reading.) In her novel, Russell tells a story of Christian missionaries to true aliens drawn by a signal consisting of beautiful music. The missionaries possess the best of intentions, and, predictably everything goes badly awry. The aliens are alien, including their culture and their value system. This clash comes close to destroying the protagonist of the novel, in body as well as in spirit. The belief in the unique truth of their faith drove the missionaries forward. The same scenario played out in the post-Columbine Americas and in colonial Africa, except on Earth the damage to the indigenous was greater. Whether it’s a deity or the absence of one, a Jesus or a Darwin fish, proselytization comes from the same place – I know better. It’s rude.
Still, I promise to be exceedingly polite to the nice young men from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints the next time they ring my doorbell.