The Ark: A Refuge . . .

It has been almost 40 days and 40 nights since my last post and it is Father’s Day . . . so, obviously, that calls for a post about Noah’s Ark! But, alas, I have not visited Noah’s Ark—and Ancient Dan, out of principle, does not post about things without direct contact. However, I have recently visited the “Ark Encounter” and (surprise!) have some thoughts about it.

The Noah’s Ark replica at the Ark Encounter theme park (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

For the uninformed: The Ark Encounter is a Christian creationist theme park[1] in northern Kentucky. It is owned and operated by Answers in Genesis (AiG),[2] a young-earth creationist non-profit founded and directed by Ken Ham, a master purveyor of pseudoscience. AiG also operates the Creation Museum nearby. The Ark Encounter was developed by AiG’s for-profit partner, Ark Encounter LLC (whose corporate office is in the Creation Museum),[3] with the benefits of huge and controversial local tax incentives. AiG, like many other “non-profit” Christian institutions, has plugged into the “business model” and is not shy about commercialization. From the moment one enters either attraction ($48 for the Ark, $35 for the Creation Museum), there are endless opportunities to spend more money on overpriced food, trinkets, and propaganda. Among other things, the Ark [Encounter] certainly provides a refuge from taxes.

View of the Ark replica from the bow end, showing the entrance queue (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

How did I end up there? I would never have done so on my own, but three other long-time friend couples planned a trip to the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. So Mrs. Ancient Dan and I joined them, fellowship with good friends, curiosity, and the principle of direct experience before commentary overcoming my reticence to give money to AiG.

Time, space, and decorum preclude any full systematic reaction to the exhibits at the Creation “Museum” and Ark Encounter. Rather, I will offer here a couple of observations on the presentation that struck me as important.

Vertical panorama of the Ark replica mid-line showing all three decks (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

I expected a barrage of pseudoscience-based arguments, but there was not as much of that as I anticipated. Other aspects of the presentation, however, troubled me more. After my visit, I discovered that Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) had a similar reaction.[4] The Science Guy noted, “every single science exhibit is absolutely wrong; not just misleading, but wrong.”[5] But that is not the disturbing part. The presentation made no serious attempt to document its claims apart from woefully out-of-context biblical references. Some might suggest that the curators of the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter are incapable of proper argumentation and citation; but I don’t think so (although one exhibit had undecipherable English syntax). Ken Ham is no scientist, but he is a crafty presenter and an able politician. The exhibits do not seek to educate; rather they aim to confirm the views of those already on board with the ark, so to speak. Preaching to the choir works! But it also erodes the choirs’ ability to think critically or for themselves.

The crowds at both facilities were themselves an exhibition of credulity. Their faces and T-shirts proclaimed a desire for confirmation of heartfelt views and a yearning for refuge from that threatening outside world—the world of science. The latter was characterized throughout the displays as the “Evolutionary World View” and tacitly blamed for the ills of human society. The Ark [Encounter] is thus a refuge from the deluge of the modern world; a place where one can be comforted that God is in control despite the chaos outside. Is there anything wrong with that? As a late secular songwriter declared: “It don’t really matter to me . . . you believe what you want to believe.” The insightful words are “what you want to believe.” The main point of the song, however, is in the next line: “you don’t have to live like a refugee.”[6] Still, is there anything wrong with seeking psychological refuge from a scary world?

Panorama of Deck 2 of the Ark replica, with Mrs Ancient Dan and a reconstruction of storage magazines that would be the envy of any “prepper” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

Unfortunately, the Ark also provides a refuge from facts. One example will suffice here. Fundamentalist Christians are (in my opinion, unreasonably) disturbed by the notion of evolution. The Flood story provides a potential avenue to explain away all those pesky and undeniable fossils (which support the “Evolutionary World View.” But if the fossils were all the result of the single Flood event, all the weird lifeforms represented in them must have coexisted with humans at the time of Noah and the Ark. The “biggest” obvious (but certainly not the only) problem, then, would be the dinosaurs. A challenge for the young-earth creationist view is the cynical question, “were there dinosaurs on the Ark?” Ken Ham’s answer to that is: “absolutely.” So the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter go to great lengths to create a narrative in which dinosaurs lounged around with Adam in the Garden of Eden (display in the Creation Museum) and had quarters on the great boat. Indeed, an inordinate percentage of the animal replicas in the Ark Encounter are dinosaur or other paleo- “kinds.”

Strange creatures on the Ark (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

At this point I should note that the craftmanship of the Ark replica is top-notch, the grounds are beautiful, and presentations are slick and high-tech. It is, in a word, impressive. The result is a massive container for a story that provides limited details. To flesh out visitors’ Encounter experience, numerous entertaining displays answer those idle questions that come with a literal understanding of the account. For example, names of Noah’s daughters-in-law are provided along with their specialized contributions (and ethnic features to match their assumed descendants). Living quarters of unexpected luxury are recreated and set the stage for other “poetic license” additions, like the library of written records (in a bizarre imaginary script). Viewers are thus invited into a storyland world not so unlike Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, the Christian fiction genre, or other fantasy theme parks.

Shem (the putative scholar of the group) kicks back with a scroll in his quarters aboard the Ark Encounter (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

What I find troubling is this: with the help of the theme park atmosphere, the visitor is encouraged to accept the presence of dinosaurs on the Ark as naturally as they might expect a huge clothed hi-pitched bipedal rodent interacting with visitors at Disneyworld.

I return to the question: is there anything wrong with all that fantasy? Not in principle; but the ability of the public to evaluate information has always been suspect. In this “Dis-information Age,” flashy presentation, repetition, and volume make discernment more of a chore (see “Russia and the 2016 election”). The real peril of Ken Ham’s efforts are a weakening of critical thinking and an indoctrinated distrust of “science.” This is already a huge problem in America, as the Anti-Vaxxer movement and the current resurgence of Measles highlight.

Ironically, Ken Ham does what the original writer of the Noah’s Ark account in Genesis did: the retelling of a well-known and beloved account infused with new details that support a particular theological view. Flood stories were written adapted in Mesopotamian cultures long before the composition of the Torah (even if one assumes the most conservative view of Mosaic authorship). Those accounts feature conflicting actions of multiple gods with humans as simple annoyances. The Genesis author was concerned with eliminating the other deities from the narrative, leaving the one God of Israel in control with a focus on human morality. Ken Ham’s retelling is concerned with eliminating the established fossil record, scientific method, and critical thinking.

Japheth (the musical one in this telling) and his conspicuously white-skinned wife, “Rayneh” (the artistic one) in their quarters aboard the Ark Encounter reconstruction (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-07)

What does any of this have to do with Father’s Day? The Genesis Flood story presents Noah as the father of all mankind through his three sons, Shem, Ham (not Ken!), and Japheth.[7] Unsurprisingly, the Ark Encounter takes up this approach. This is a danger zone because literal views of the Shem, Ham, and Japheth division was used to justify slavery in this country (primarily through interpretations of Gen 9:20-27). Happily, Ken Ham denounces racism in numerous displays—which I wholeheartedly applaud. So the Ark should be a refuge—from bigotry and hatred, because we are all in this boat together.  

Happy Father’s Day!



[1]  I felt a little bad about this characterization until I saw that Wikipedia uses the same phrase; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ark_Encounter (accessed 15 June 2019).

[2] “Ark Encounter Media Resources,” https://arkencounter.com/press/ (accessed 15 June 2019).

[3] “Company Overview of Ark Encounter, LLC,” Bloomberg,  https://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapid=134385996 (accessed 15 June 2019).

[4] I am gratified that Bill Nye also felt the need to see it first hand—and would like to think that our common engineering backgrounds are the reason for our similar approaches.

[5] Erik Ortiz, “’Absolutely Wrong’: Bill Nye the Science Guy Takes on Noah’s Ark Exhibit, NBC News, 16 July 2016; https://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/absolutely-wrong-bill-nye-science-guy-takes-noah-s-ark-n608721.

[6] Tom Petty (and Michael W. Campbell), “Refugee,” 1979.

[7] BONUS FOR PEOPLE THAT READ FOOTNOTES: The earlier Mesopotamian flood epics mentioned above have undeniable parallels to the Genesis account in terms of building details, the releasing of birds, and a post-flood sacrifice. But the Mesopotamian stories do not emphasize the notion of the variously-named boat builders populating the world. This aspect of the tale is found, however, in the less well-known Greek flood myth of Deucalion, where the hero repopulates the world through three sons. A new study of these parallels is found in Guy Darshan, After the Flood: Stories of Origins in the Hebrew Bible and Eastern Mediterranean Literature [Hebrew], Biblical Encyclopedia Library 35 (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2018).

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Lystra: Human Nature on Display (Pic Of The Day, 12 May 2019)

A follow-up to my previous Pic of The (special) Day post is in order. Last week, I held forth on the “Genesis of the Accepting Church” using the Apostle Paul’s first visit to the city Antioch of Pisidia, as narrated by Acts 13. This was occasioned by my use of the passage for a special combined Sunday School session on the 60th anniversary of University Baptist Church’s own Genesis. As it happens, the Narrative Lectionary used by UBC covers Paul’s continued work on the same journey in the cities of Lystra and Derbe, also in the Roman province of Galatia. If you haven’t read the one about Antioch of Pisidia, it might be helpful and can be found here.

The mound, or Hüyük of Lystra, with random students distributed for scale (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Immediately after Antioch of Pisidia, the same sequence of events is reported at Iconium but with far less detail: Paul going to the synagogue, having an opportunity to preach there because of his status, resistance by unbelieving synagogue Jews, and eventual persecution and departure (Acts 14:1-7). From Iconium, they moved on to nearby Lystra. Today Lystra remains a largely un-investigated and non-descript ruin in the Lycaonian plain. The site is dominated by a large hüyük; a mound of ruins built up over centuries or millennia of human occupation (more familiar by the Arabic word tell). The active agricultural fields surrounding the mound are devoid of architectural features, but abound in those indicators of an ancient site: sherds of broken pottery and small stone objects turned up by the plow. It is a prototypical example of an unpreserved and unexcavated ancient site.  

View from the crest of the mound at Lystra with not-so-ancient-Daniel and worked fields below (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-05-21)

At Lystra the biblical narrative focuses on Paul’s healing of a cripple—very possibly at the synagogue where Paul was speaking (Acts 14:8-10)—and the aftermath of that miraculous event. Some of the locals, amazed by what Paul had done, declared him and Barnabas to be “the gods” in human form. Paul, “since he was the chief speaker,” was called Hermes (the messenger of the Olympian Greek gods) and Barnabas—apparently more quietly dignified and stately(?)—was deemed to be Zeus! The priest of Zeus brought out “oxen and garlands” to offer a sacrifice, but Paul and Barnabas declaimed that they were mere men and scarcely managed to avert the sacrifice (Acts 14:11-18). Then, with no indication of time passed after the previous scene, the reader of Acts is told that Jews from Antioch (of Pisidia) and Iconium came and “persuaded the people,” so that “they stoned Paul dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (v. 19). How could the same people declare Paul and Barnabas to be gods worthy of sacrifice and in the next verse stone Paul and leave him for dead? The answer, I sadly conclude, is human nature.

A modern recreation of the stoning of Paul just outside of Lystra; note the stone in flight at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17) [NOTE: no Charlies were injured in the creation of this picture]

We, as most mammals do, have something of a pack mentality which causes us to readily accept a potential leader who demonstrates (or sometimes only claims) an ability to “save” us from whatever we may fear. This desire leads to irrational beliefs and actions. We see as much in this story; but also throughout history, in politics, in sports, and even entertainment. In the Roman world, the practice of worshiping the emperor as divine may strike us as “ignorant,” but it operated on the same psychology. And it worked! —as seen in the impressive temple to Augustus at Antioch of Pisidia (pictured in my previous post) complete with an entablature featuring bulls decorated with garlands, the very items brought out for sacrifice in our story.

Antiochia Pisidia: one of the many bull and garland fragments from the Temple of Augustus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Apparently refusing the role of physical/political savior, failing to provide what the crowds demand, or not being what people first hoped, is a dangerous business. This is the human side of what physically happened to Jesus; and Paul’s experience is an echo. The Lycaonians of Lystra demonstrate, in the extremes of their actions, the foibles of human temperament.

Happily, we don’t have to leave Lystra (or this blog) completely depressed about humanity. Paul returned to the city on the so-called “Second Missionary Journey” (Acts 16:1-3) and found the good side of people and their instincts. In Lystra Paul met a disciple named “Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.” This Timothy was the product of a mixed marriage, which may have been a social burden and certainly created the potential for theological discrimination (Acts 16:3). It might be argued that Timothy’s mother is only mentioned because of her contribution to his mixed heritage, but note that only she is cited as a believer. And, assuming we can take it as authentic (many do not), 2 Timothy 1:5 has Paul remarking to Timothy about his faith: “a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” Timothy clearly received much more than Jewishness from his mother and his grandmother.

Lystra with a bouquet of wildflowers
Lystra in full Spring bloom; the hüyük rising in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

The love and nurture of a mother reveals and passes on the best part of human nature. We see it at Lystra in this story, and I feel it in my own life and in the lives of my children. As Tim[othy] might have said, “God bless[ed] us, every one!”

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Pisidian Antioch: Genesis of the Accepting Church

This post is the result of my being asked to teach a special combined Sunday School session for University Baptist Church’s 60th anniversary, 5 May 2019. I decided to cover the Acts 13 passage in which the Apostle Paul established the first Christian church in Antiochia Pisidia, “Antioch of Pisidia.” And, I’ll take any opportunity to put pictures of a place to a story. Hence this “Pic of the (special) Day” entry.

The mountainous backdrop of Antiocha Pisidia in the Anatolian highlands; with the platform and remains of a Temple of Augustus, cut from the living rock in an apsidal recess at the end of a long courtyard (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Antiochia Pisidia is one of several cities named “Antioch” in the Greco-Roman world, and distinct from the Antioch for which so many rural protestant churches are named in the American Bible Belt region. That earlier Antioch is often called “Antioch on the Orontes” or “Antioch of Syria,” and it is where the early Christian church made its breakout in the Hellenistic world (Acts 11:19-26). It is also the “home church” for the so-called “Missionary Journeys of Paul—the first of which brings the Apostle to the Antioch of Pisidia.

Ancient Dan’s daughter, Rachel, inside the well-preserved baths at Antiocha Pisidia; note the aqueduct visible through the back door (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Paul had assumed leadership of the First Journey, originally led by Barnabas, it seems (Acts 13:1-4), as the group left Cyprus and arrived in at Perga Asia Minor (Acts 13:13). No work is described at Perga and, for reasons unexplained by the biblical text, Paul continued inland an appreciable distance to Antioch of Pisidia. Antioch was made a Roman colony by the Emperor Augustus, to whom an impressive temple was built. Augustus also established the Via Sebaste, a major road that connected Antioch with Perga to the southwest and Iconium and Lystra to the east, all cities visited by Paul on that First Journey.

Antiocha Pisidia; Aqueduct above the city (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Antioch of Pisidia was a typical Roman-Hellenistic city, with the usual institutions and structures: the Temple of Augustus, public fountains and baths powered by an aqueduct, and a minority community of Jews with a synagogue. As in many Roman cities, some number of non-Jews (Gentiles) attended the synagogue because of their interest and belief in the one God of Judaism. Such Gentiles were called “God Fearers” and were part of the synagogue community, but not considered Proselytes (converts)—no doubt because of the difficult requirement of circumcision for full conversion.

Antiocha Pisidia: the large basilica known as the St. Paul Church; claimed by one archaeologist who worked at the site to be built over the synagogue, but this view is not widely held (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Paul and his company went to the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia on the sabbath day (Acts 13:14). This is the first city to which the missionary group arrived with Paul in the full leadership position, and the author (traditionally Luke) gives a rather complete outline of what occurred. The account provides an outline of Paul’s procedure/experience in each succeeding city with only minor variations. Because of his rabbinical training under Gamaliel, the most respected Rabbi of the period, Paul would automatically be asked to deliver a homily after the Torah and other biblical readings in the synagogue service. This is what is described (Acts 13:15-16), and Paul delivered a sermon (vss 16-41) that was well-received by some Jews and God Fearers alike (42-43). The next sabbath many more people appeared at the synagogue (44). These were no doubt other Gentiles who came because of reports from the God Fearers who had heard Paul the previous week. The unbelieving Jews were “filled with jealousy” when they saw the crowds—people different from them, from which the synagogue was something of a refuge. They contradicted Paul, which is to be expected as theological debate and argumentation over the Law is a well-established Jewish tradition. But more alarmingly they “reviled him” (45), leading me to the conclusion that this was not just about theology: they used theology as an excuse and a tool for exclusion of those who were different—in this case the Gentiles; especially those not in conformance with the Jewish Law.

Antiocha Pisidia: the distinctive Byzantine basilica apse of the St Paul Church (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-23)

Paul’s reaction at Antioch of Pisidia, as in every other city save one, was to leave the synagogue and form a new faith community—a church—with the believing Jews and God Fearers (46). It was successful and grew (48-49). Its eventual persecution by the synagogue Jews underlines the latter’s attitude and my conclusion that, here and in many similar situations (ancient and modern), theology divides while inclusion builds community.

Paul went on to repeat the same basic sequence at other cities of the First Journey, all of them (with Antioch of Pisidia) in the Roman province called Galatia. There is considerable debate but, for purely logical reasons, I maintain that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written to those churches founded on the First Journey about the time of the “Judaizing Controversy” (Acts 15), in which the “Judaizers” attempted to force Gentile Christians to keep the Jewish Law as a condition of salvation. The letter to the Galatians is clearly in the context of this controversy and lays out the case that Gentiles are not required to keep the Jewish Law (of which circumcision is the most painful prescription). In that letter occurs the “focal verse” of University Baptist Church, Galatians 2:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is worth noting that “Greeks” (Gentiles/God Fearers) were separated from full Jewish males in the synagogue, as were women of any persuasion. The verse focuses on the elimination of distinctions—distinctions which continue to arise through Christian history. It is refreshing to belong to a congregation that understands this foundational tenet of building truly Christian communion.

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The Hazards of Tax Day (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-24)

I was considering some sort of “seasonal” post relating to that hazard of early Spring in the USA: the looming April 15 tax deadline. I have not dealt with my complicated tax situation for 2018 yet and need to get on it. Anyhow, my consideration of a tax theme turned to resolve at University Baptist Church this morning; a result of the New Testament passage (Matthew 22) and related sermon on the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. More about the connection below, but stay with me . . .

Panorama of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the subject of this post is at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum.  Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.

The central Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the Temple of Divus Julius is the ugly brown mass at lower center with idlers milling about in front, as usual (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.

The remains of the Temple to Divus Julius (foreground) in the Roman Forum; it is hard to get a pic clear of people because the railing in front of the nondescript ruins make a convenient spot for groups to wait around (as you can see here, unaware of the significance); note the later Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (converted to a church) in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform) is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing. A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.

Altar associated with the Temple to Divus Julius, concealed from the crowds by the wall on the right; note the floral offerings on top, and many coins wherein folks apparently “rendered unto Caesar” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.

Silver denarius issued by Brutus (on obverse); with (reverse) “Ides of March” under Pileus (freedom cap) and two daggers (photo: British Museum)

While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. For more on that, and the connection to Jesus’ answer to the question posed to him on paying taxes to Caesar, stay tuned for the next post. For now, I have to go work on my taxes . . .

BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. At this moment I am glad.

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The Road Between Jerusalem and Jericho and the Road Between Discrimination and Acceptance (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-10)

I was asked to give the “spoken reflection” at tonight’s Celtic Worship Service at University Baptist Church, and thought I would post my reflection here with a couple of pics. The focal passage is the famous “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, which I find very thought-provoking in light of the increased divisiveness and media focus on racism of late in our society. I have done a great deal of introspection on these topics in recent months and even thought of making an Ancient Dan blog post entitled “Confessions of a former Racist.” But my wife and daughter wisely advised against it. The “Good Samaritan” story, I think, provides a way to express my thoughts in a better way.

First, a quick look at the “Good Samaritan” account as I see it. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, “and who is my neighbor?” in the context of discussing the Jewish Law. In it, a man is assaulted by bandits and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The geography is important here, as it is a desolate road through unoccupied desert, where there were no neighbors.

The Wadi Qelt, along the path of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the Judean Desert; the area was only inhabited by those seeking to get away—either from the authorities or for religious isolation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

As Jesus narrates, a priest came along the road and we expect that this religious man will help our unfortunate victim. But, alas, on this road a priest would be headed up to Jerusalem where he would serve his week-long rotation in the Temple. It was the highest religious duty in the Jewish Law and could not be compromised by uncleanness imputed by blood from the victim or—worse—contamination by his corpse should the man be found dead or die whilst receiving aid. The priest crossed to the other side and passed by. And the hearers of this story—all Jews—were not in the least surprised or judgmental. All the same logic was true for the Levite that happened along next. None of those listening expected that he would stop either. What crummy luck; our victim was having a really bad day. But then in Jesus’ telling there is another who appears and nears—a Samaritan! While we now think of “Good Samaritans” or even just “Samaritans” as helpers, this notion destroys the gist of the story. To the Jew, a Samaritan was the worst of rivals. Jesus’ listeners no doubt expected this “bad” (by their definition) Samaritan to stomp on the victim’s head and finish the job. The bad day, they thought, was now the worst of days. He of course, as we know, demonstrated the proper action of kindness.

Wadi Qelt: the monastery of St. George (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

But this story is not about how to treat others; it is really about how we perceive them. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I perceive others. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant heterosexual man. I was raised in a “middle-class” American home which, by any world-wide standard, was a life of privilege. So I am a potential poster-boy for racist and intolerant views. Nevertheless, I’ve always denied that I was bigoted or intolerant. In my extended family, I cannot ever recall having heard the “N” word used or any other racial or discriminatory epithet. BUT, that is a poor gauge on how I have perceived others. Like most folks, I learned from my youth to categorize people with labels like, “the black guy,” “the Mexican woman,” “the gay dude” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide sidewalk fan.” So this is not so much the confession of a former racist, but the admission of an unconscious tribalist.

I am convinced that human beings have an innate tendency for group identification, like the herd or pack instincts of other mammals. Unfortunately, in “civilized” human society it is somehow easier to identify one’s group by isolating those who are not part of it—through creation of the “other.” This is easiest with obvious differences like skin color, but the principle is the same for all discriminations.

Back to the “Good Samaritan.” The key for me is realization that the lesson is not in the story itself, but in the question asked by Jesus at the end, to the one who asked him “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”

It is sometimes observed that when the “lawyer” responded to Jesus, he was unwilling to use the designation “Samaritan” because of his disdain for that group. He responded, “the one who showed mercy on him.” The Jewish-Samaritan divide was severe, to be sure, but it was not due to physical difference. The Samaritans were—as an ethnic group—half Israelite. They were the other monotheistic minority in the early Roman Empire period, worshipping the same God as Israel and practicing circumcision like the Jews. The Romans could not tell the difference between Samaritans and Jews that were naked and talking about God. Tribalism and details of theology had created the schism.

It is true that the Samaritan demonstrates that all are our potential neighbors. But I wonder if the lawyer really got it right with his generic description. The main point may be how we perceive others upon first glance or knowledge. Do I continue using categories and labels for people, or can I see them generically, all capable of good and mercy. This is the challenge, and Jesus consistently points me—and all of us—in the direction of acceptance.

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Pic of the Day (2019-02-28): Fading Winter, Receding Ice, and Lost Sleep

Here in South Mississippi it appears that Winter has largely ceded the environment to an early Spring, but with emphasis on precipitation. There does seem to be a LOT of water available up in the atmosphere. Those observations are my excuse to post this POTD of a receding glacier. Sadly, that is the current state of all glaciers. I was reminded of this by looking at my location for this pic on Google Earth, which indicates my position well within the glacier ice. Why? Google Earth’s current imagery of the area (as of this writing) is four years previous (2014-08-02) to the photo (2018-07-11), when the glacier was significantly more extended. You can see this too by zooming way in on the “South Sawyer Glacier” item in the map of POTD sites (note that the icon is where the camera was when the picture was made).

The South Sawyer Glacier; Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-07-11)

This is the South Sawyer Glacier, at one of branches at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord, some 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The blue color of glacier ice is pretty cool . . . but I am not sure this pic does the scene justice.

So, I resolved to attempt to get a panoramic picture up on this blog, but discovered it is not so easy (without a more expensive account plan). Here is the pic I want in panoramic form (it looks decent on a wide computer screen, but not so much on a cell phone):

The South Sawyer Glacier at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-07-11)

Turns out WordPress has a virtual reality image option, but this looks weird unless you have a VR headset on:

Facebook has a pretty decent panorama system, but you must upload from your phone which is pretty difficult if you make any serious edits or cropping. I hoped to beat the WordPress limitation by embedding the Facebook pano here. But, alas, you must click on it and go to Facebook for the panoramic action:

Oh Well. So here is a bonus pic of the North Sawyer Glacier. It is a little grimier with a more variegated blue light refraction, but has a more dramatic backdrop. I’ll not even attempt a panorama:

The North Sawyer Glacier; Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-07-11)

In summary:

  • It is getting warmer and glaciers are receding
  • There is too much water in the air in the southern USA
  • I cannot make panoramic pics work as 360-degree panoramas in my blog without a more expensive plan
  • I spent way too much time trying to work around the problem instead of working on stuff I really need to do
  • Glaciers have a blue appearance . . . and are really cool (in case you didn’t get the bad pun above)
  • Glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate
  • You should go see them before they (and you) are gone
  • This post was mostly an excuse to play with the options and get a pic from Alaska on my POTD map

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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui: Take Me to the River . . .

But there is no river on Rapa Nui. Indeed, Easter Island has no perennial watercourse of any kind. Perhaps there were streams prior to deforestation but, by any estimation, water resources were and are a major issue for inhabitants of this small remote island with irregular rainfall. That and other environmental limitations make the erection of the famous statues (moai) on their even larger platforms (ahu) all the more impressive and mysterious.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), with inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

An interesting new study highlighted by CNN in this linked story claims to have solved “the mystery” of why Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’s ahu and moai were built where they were. In the technical article (online version here for the academically interested),[1] a team of scholars concludes that the island’s famous structures were built at locations where fresh water was available. In some ways this seems like an obvious solution, but the study employs GIS and statistics to solidify the case. The authors include Terry Lipo and Carl Hunt, who acknowledge the environmental stress and deforestation realities but rightly emphasize the ingenuity of the Rapanui people in their excellent 2011 book.[2]

This addition to my series on Rapa Nui/Easter Island is to call attention to this important study and allow me to add a related personal anecdote.

Ahu Tongariki, Rapi Nui (Easter Island, Chile): guardians of fresh water? (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-13)

As an archaeologist with a desire to see everything everywhere, I naturally sought to visit as many of the 200-300 ahu as possible on a 5-day visit to Rapa Nui. Most tourists and bus tours concentrate on the well-known sites with restored ahu and re-erected moai, or the half-buried “heads” of moai at the Rano Raraku quarry. We saw those, but I dragged my long-suffering wife to many other ruins that appear to be “piles of rocks.”

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); note two fallen and broken moai, one fallen to the left of the ahu and a fractured one on top (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

At the relatively unimpressive and little-visited Ahu Hanga Tetenga on the SE coast, I noticed a fenced cattle pasture across the road as I turned down the trail to the site. Exiting our rental “jeep” (a 4×4 Suzuki Jimny) I anoticed a pronounced droning noise mixed with the sound of the surf. But attracted by the ruins, I ignored all this and headed for the pile of rocks that once was a proud ahu with two toppled and broken moai.

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) with two fallen moai; the water pump referenced in the text is at the water line out of frame below and to right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I gawked and photographed as Felicia admired the South Pacific. Suddenly the droning noise ceased and, within a minute, a lone motor scooter careened down the slope from the cattle yard above and beyond the road — headed straight for my wife! The rider dismounted as I walked swiftly and warily that direction. He passed Felicia without a word and bounded down the short cliff to the water, where I was able to crane and see a gas-powered water pump that had quit. He retrieved a hidden gas can, added fuel, and restarted it. Passing us without comment, he jumped on the scooter and bounced away over the rocky landscape to tend his cattle. Unbelievably, it did not occur to me to photograph the pump system or the rancher who was there less than two minutes. His water pipe is faintly visible here:

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island): a mostly-buried and barely perceptible water pipe, highlighted slightly in this pic, runs from the short cliff behind the sign, under a line of stones, and off to the left (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I remembered commenting to Felicia as we turned down the path, “I wonder how they get enough water for those cattle in this desolate place?” Now we knew. The rancher was pumping from a “seep,” where the fresh water aquifer of the island invisibly spills out of the submerged rocks into the ocean. Such seeps are common and long-utilized on Rapa Nui. The location of Ahu Hanga Tetenga, just above this source, vividly demonstrates the study’s conclusions.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), showing water sources in the cited study area (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The article, just published last week (10 January 2019) not only presents a reasonable and well-defended case, but it is also a model of “open access” publishing (meaning that it is available to anyone without subscription). The authors even provide links to shapefiles (GIS data) used in the research. I happily downloaded and incorporated them to improve my own data and map of Rapa Nui (above). Now I have a need to go back to get a pic of that pump . . .

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[1] R. J. DiNapoli, C. P. Lipo, T. Brosnan, T. L. Hunt, S. Hixon, et al. 2019. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) monument (ahu) locations explained by freshwater sources. PLOS ONE 14(1): e0210409. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210409.

[2] Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).


The full “Talking Heads of Rapa Nui” series (best read in order)
Part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World
Part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu
Part 3: The Making of a Moai
Part 4: The Mystery of Moai Moving
Part 5: Hats Make the Moai?
Part 6: The Fall of the Moai
Part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?
Part 8: A Warning to Us All