Open the Windows

Telling stories is a major part of what makes human beings unique. Before books we passed myths, and legends through word of mouth. Then we discovered writing and began recording our words onto tablets of stone, and then paper scrolls. It’s this ability to communicate complex ideas, remember them, and pass them on to others that has allowed us to develop farming, and the wheel, and weapons, and government, and science, and university, and rocket ships, and intra-solar system travel.

It’s hard for me to recall a time when the idea of space travel hasn’t been a part of my life. My mother loved science-fiction dramas like Star Trek, and Star Wars. What else could be more thrilling than exploring, and visiting places never seen before? Reaching out to the unknown, and actually finding it. Meeting funny brown fishy antenna people, and green people with insect faces, and horned blue yetis with genitals on their knee caps. Rolling passed giant, swirly, polychromatic marbles like you’re driving through the Grand Teton National Park is a thing of my childhood dreams. It’s pure adventure!

Amazingly, all those sci-fi stories are relatively new to humans. Think about this. The first human being left our planet in 1961. My in-laws were a few months from leaving high school, and going to college. Eight years later we put boots on Luna. My mother was heading to her sophomore year of high school, and couldn’t even drive herself there. In general, if you were born anytime since 1961 then human space travel is apart of your cognitive experience. Pictures of moons, and planets, and distant stars are like everyday occurances barely worth a NASA notification banner on your phone.

Roughly three hundred fifty years before human beings broke the limits of heaven, people actually thought the Sun revolved around the Earth. Let that sink in.

Before the ideas of Copernicus and his heliocentric model began to shift human thought, European farmers enjoying a clear view of the Milky Way, or merchant sailors looking to the constellations for directions, had no idea what they were looking at. They saw it as a bunch of lights rotating around our gigantic globe. A big one by day, and smaller ones by night. At best, only hand fulls of people had seen fuzzy images of those balls through the newish invention of the telescope.

Even weirder, less than two hundred years before the Copernican Revolution, people still believed the world had an edge. As some American Southerners say, it was “flat as a flitter”. It was not unlike the paper maps sailors carried on voyages. It took the commercial and financial interests of European oligarchy, a lust for gold, and the ambitious Christopher Columbus to prove the world wasn’t a snow globe. (Side note: if you’re a Flat Earther, you’re trying too hard. The math has been checked. The science tested. Stop being contrary.)

Myths about the edge of the world, undiscovered lands, and titanic monsters were the norm before 1492. Think of myths like Jason and the Argonauts, or Homer’s poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. These were fantastic origin stories of places, and people groups known to ancient Mediterranean listeners. Complex dramas of gods and goddesses to explain things like mountains, and oceans, and lightening, and love, and death. Rulers in the sky, above the clouds, out of the reach of human civilization. Many of their names you know by heart. Why? Because humans named things in the sky after these mythical characters, and we’re still using them thousands of years later.

So, it’s no surprise that we still believe, and teach ancient stories as truth even though the science has long surpassed those traditional ideas. It was easy for ancient people to conceive of a global flood caused by underground fountains and sky windows being opened to allow rain to pour on the earth for 40 days. It wasn’t a metaphor to them. God and his heavenly hosts (aka the stars) were in the Expanse above the earth. And, up in heaven was water. All God had to do to flood the Earth was open some windows.

I know. Right now you’re trying to wrap your head around the implications of that. “That can’t be what the Bible says!” I promise you it is. The book of Genesis is very clear as to where Heaven is. It’s in the sky. This “Expanse”, literally the “Heights” (shamayim), separates the waters of earth from the waters in the sky. And, it has windows (arubbah) that can be opened, closed, and seen through. Sky windows show up multiple times in the Old Testament (ex. Gen 7:11; Gen 8:2; 2 Kings 7:2, 7:19; Isa 24:18).

Once you realize that the ancient Israelites saw the world… well, like a snow globe, as ancient people did, then those biblical stories start to make more sense. Trying to rationalize them through our modern understanding of the planet (and universe) will drive you crazy. The mental gymnastics alone will break your brain. Here’s a few thought experiments to argue my point:

Q: Why would anyone build a tower that reached up to heaven, and why would God even care? (Genesis 11) A: Because the sky is where God is! He had to put a stop to those shenanigans before he had uninvited dinner guests. Honestly, if I were god I’d let those jokers build their silly tower. It would either topple over and kill them all, or they’d run out of oxygen right after they passed the elevation of Mount Everest. Problem solved!

Q: Why would anyone dream about a ladder that could “reach” to heaven, and said ladder also have angels ascending and descending to Earth? (Gen 28:12) A: Because the sky is where angles are! It’s where God, and his heavenly court held council. It’s where they all peered down, and watched the earthlings mess up the joint. That’s right. Up there! In the sky! If only we had a ladder tall enough.

Q: How could God make the Sun and Moon freeze in place, for a full day, without any physiological, or geological effects? (Joshua 10:12) A: Simple! Because the Sun and Moon float above the Earth, up in the expanse, with all the other lights. Stopping them would change nothing on the ground. Imagine watching a movie on the domed ceiling of a planetarium. It’s like that. The Sun can roam if it wants to, roam around the world.

For many people, these stories are obviously outdated, but some people take them very, very, VERY literally. I know this because I used to think that, and teach it too. Because I was taught that the Bible was 100 percent without error. I assumed that these stories were synonymous with our modern knowledge. I was interpreting the words as if they had been written today with a shared understanding of how the universe works. I squished, and twisted, and mashed the ancient concepts into my modern box. When we do this we miss the perspective of the ancients, and thereby miss what the words actually meant to them.

Ultimately, science changed my mind. Consider the speed of light as one example. We know how fast light travels. Tiny photons escape their star, and travel in a straight line across space until they meet our eyes. If we could travel at the speed of light it would take us about 4.24 years to get to Proxima Centauri, the closest star outside of our solar system. That means, if the earth is only five to ten thousand years old then the photons of any star farther than 10,000 light years away wouldn’t have reached our planet yet. IF that were the case our sky would be much darker because there are literally hundreds of billions of stars and galaxies, that we can see, that are farther than that.

The ancient writers of the Hebrew Bible didn’t know about astrophysics, geology, paleontology, or well, almost everything contemporary humans learn before adulthood. And, I promise I’m not ancient bashing. Honest! Even my favorite science fiction writers miss the mark. Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, and Michael Crichton all wrote futuristic stories that have technologies that are obsolete, yet to happen, or flat out wrong. Reading fiction, especially science fiction, requires that you suspend disbelief. Or, at the very least, accept that not everything is accurate.

There’s a silent film from 1902, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) that you should most definitely watch. It’s a masterpiece from early film history. In summary, a bullet shaped space capsule is fired from a cannon into the eye of the Man in the Moon. The five brave astronauts explore the moon without space suits. They sleep on blankets out in the open. They battle alien goblins, and find giant mushrooms in a cave. Audiences of the day received it with exuberant applause. It was absolutely sensational. It was obviously wrong.

I’m currently reading Babylon’s Ashes, by James S. A. Corey. It’s book 6 in The Expanse series, which you might have heard is kind of a big deal. Set in our own solar system, several hundred years in the not so distant future, human beings are living on moons, and rocks, and terra forming Mars. All is status quo until some space goo shows up, and changes the course of human interstellar colonization. It’s EPIC!

If you don’t have time to read it then I strongly recommend the SYFY/Amazon tv series. They’ve done a fantastic job of sticking to the major characters, and plots. Oh! And, Amos Burton (played by the amazingly talented, Georgia native, Wes Chatham) has got to be the coolest, space cowboy, character ever conceived. Think Clint Eastwood in mechanic overalls.

One day, in the future, rock hopping humans will look back on our own ignorances. Hopefully, they’ll graciously accept that we just didn’t know any better. And, maybe, just maybe, they’ll enjoy some of our stories for what they are. Stories.

At the Name of Joshua Every Knee Should Bow

Have you ever known somebody that you called one name for years only to find out later it was their middle name? Or maybe, like me, you had a nickname that almost everyone called you. My nickname was Dink. (It still is to some people). That name was so pervasive that at my high school graduation several friends didn’t know my actual name when they heard it announced. It followed me for years after high school. I had to move to another state to finally be rid of it.

The origin story is that it’s a shortening of my last name. It’s not a big leap when you think about it chronologically. I remember the process quite well. During fourth grade everyone called me by my last name, Drinkwater. That’s to be expected with a surname like mine. It’s playground comedy at it’s finest. It stayed like that for months until it took on a life of it’s own. Drinkwater devolved into Drinky. After a bit Drinky became Dinky (thank you Mike Lancaster for that one). Finally, after several more weeks of name calling, we landed on Dink. I’m pretty sure I protested, but once you have a nickname you’re stuck with it.

This leads me to the most famous etymological origin that nobody remembers. It’s probably my favorite ice breaker (also, I’m great fun at parties, and family gatherings). I usually start this particular “Adam’s Fun Facts” like this:

“What name did Jesus’s mother call him?”

Now, for the clever Christians among us this tends to be an opportunity to say Immanuel. But, that’s incorrect. Besides, there’s no place in the Bible that we read of anyone actually calling him Immanuel. That name only appears two times in our English translations. It’s something the prophet Isaiah says to King Ahaz as an encouraging sign that the armies who are attacking his country will soon be gone. The author of Matthew repurposes the verse as part of an angelic prophecy, fulfilled 800 years later, about the baby of a craftsman’s pregnant fiancé.

First of all, Mary, Joseph, and the lower classes of ancient Palestine definitely spoke Aramaic. Not Hebrew, and definitely not English. In the northern region of Israel, north of Samaria, in the very remote hills of Galilee his name would have been Yeshua. That’s the Aramaic form of the Hebrew name Yehoshua. The meaning of which is the Lord is Salvation, or YHWH Saves. This is the name the angel tells Joseph to give the baby, and “He will save His people from their sins”. In English we’d simply call him Joshua.

Unfortunately, for Yeshua all of the books that are written about him were penned in Greek. Which in this context is unexpected. His family, his disciples, and almost everyone around him were illiterate, Aramaic speakers (see Acts 4:13). For the first thirty-ish years of Christianity the stories about Yeshua circulated by word of mouth. The only people who were educated enough to read or write about him were mostly living in major Hellenistic cities. Eventually, these very educated converts, like the Apostle Paul, wrote the traditions down in Greek. The Greek form of Yeshua/Joshua is rendered Iésous (pronounced: ee-ay-sooce’).

As the Hellenistic, Greek world was swiftly overtaken by the Romans the books of the Bible were translated into Latin. Here is where we land on the transliteration from Iésous to Iesus. The Roman Catholic Church wins the day (and the West), and Yeshua is forevermore known as Jesus. Throughout the Western world the latin text was the only version taught from the pulpit. For many hundreds of years it remained this way until a gusty, somewhat unstable, German monk decided to translate the New Testament into the vernacular of the people in 1522. The first English version of the Bible was completed in 1535.

So, for most of the Western world the only name they’d ever heard their Lord, and Savior called is the latin Jesus. Just imagine taking your modern English version of the Bible and replacing the name Jesus over 900 times with Joshua. Then, imagine trying to convince your local church, friends, and family to start calling Jesus, Joshua. Then everyone else in the country, the church leaders, and oh yeah the King. Good luck with that. Jesus it is!

Seriously, it’s not really a big deal. Jesus. Joshua. Potato. Potato.

But, in a way it is a big deal. Imagine a future world where George Washington is known as Apu, and Barak Obama is called Nick. Names are more than just letters, or sounds. They create meaning, and context. They are boxes that form our comprehension. They have power over thoughts. Replacing Yeshua (or Joshua) with a Latin name strips him of cultural identity, and context. As Jesus, he can be molded into whatever we want. Without context, he can be a blonde haired, blue eyed European with a well manicured beard.

The hard truth is we prefer it this way. We would rather stick with what we know, than what is true. For my high school friends it feels weird to call me Adam, and my southern family to call me Dink. It’s out of balance. The contra name doesn’t match the residual image they have of me. This is why I’ll continue to write Dink on my name badge at all future high school class reunions. And, it’s why we’ll stick to our collective memory of Jesus. Because it’s just easier.

Sure, most people will probably be fine with the idea that we call Jesus the wrong English name. But, it’ll get tucked away in this weird space in our brains. You know the one. It’s the place where we hold onto contradictory ideas, and keep moving forward like everything is fine. We’re so good at hiding things here that we forget it’s even there.

But, what if you personally remembered that his name is Joshua? Does your revised image of him look like the brown skinned, blacked haired, middle-easterner that he was? Would it change how you treat strangers, and foreigners? Does Joshua inspire you to live out his message of looking after the poor, and oppressed? Would it encourage you to love others, and do good deeds? Would it change the meaning of praying in his name? Does it make you wonder what else you might be missing?

Podcast: Dr. Jay Valentine

Dr. Jay Valentine is my special guest for this Season 1 bonus episode. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Troy University, and an expert in Buddhism, eastern religions, meditation, and philosophy. We recorded this episode just as Alabama began shutting down right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I really thought I’d have plenty of time to edit, and release it during the stay-at-home orders, but it just didn’t play out that way. And, Jay is such a cool guy that I hated to just not release it. Pre-COVID, we spent a couple hours at his office talking about world religions, and I asked him about his particular area of research, and he just blew my mind with his work on the Northern Treasure Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It was such a good conversation that I knew I needed to record a podcast with him.

World religions have fascinated me for a long time. The stories that people tell each other to explain life, and the world seems to be a universal human trait. These beliefs share elements of truth, and fiction that we can all learn from. We cover Jay’s journey to university, and to study Buddhism and meditation. We walk through elements of meditation, and what it can mean for reducing suffering in our life. And, we talk about other ways that we can think about the world that might help us deal with the isolation, and the time alone during this pandemic.

One last thing before the interview, I’ll be posting Season 2 of The Bean Pot beginning in January, so look for those updates as well. 

And now, the interview you’ve been waiting for, here’s Dr. Jay Valentine.

Finding My Strength

What are you good at? It’s easy to focus on what we do badly. We see it in ourselves, and we’re quick to see it in others. When one of my children brings home a grade, or report card I tend to look at the worst grade first. Immediately, I want to focus all of our efforts on fixing that one grade. And, sometimes the weakness gets all the attention, and the strengths get overlooked.

I took my first Myers-Briggs assessment in a high school Psychology class, and discovered I was an ISFP. Those letters were like bread crumbs leading down a new path of discovery. I took other personality tests, and learned amazing things about how our mind works. They taught me that our feelings, moods, likes, and dislikes all come from this complex organic system we call our bodies. Knowing this encourages me to practice honest, and gracious self-assessment when I find that I’m being too hard on myself.

Several years ago, I was given a copy of Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0, from Gallup. The assessment identifies your top 5 strengths (hence the name). The list wasn’t surprising, but it was very revealing.

My five in order from top to bottom: Adaptability, Input, Empathy, Ideation, and Maximizer.

Without a doubt, these are my strengths.

As I sifted through the “Strength Insights and Action-Planning Guide” I noticed a couple patterns. One, I’m fiercely independent. Routine and schedules frustrate me. I like to go with the flow. I get bored easily. Everyday is different, and I get something different from every day. Bob Dylan said it best, “I change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, and when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else.”

Second pattern: In three of my strengths I was given the career suggestion of journalism. Wait, what? Journalism? So, immediately I thought “something is wrong here”. I began to tabulate all the things I’m not good at. I pictured a journalist in my mind, and I didn’t see myself in any of those images. I’m not great at writing, or reading, or speaking on camera, or…

But, “Journalism” wouldn’t go away. It kept nagging at me.

Then I remembered something. In high school I had a weekly, one-hour radio show as part of the Radio Club. I had totally forgotten about it! It was SO much fun! Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was all of the kinds of awful you’d expect from a group of high school kids. I hope, and pray there isn’t a recording of it out there. (side note: I’d pay big hush money to get rid of any bootleg cassettes tapes).

That wasn’t all. Before I decided on art school, can you guess the college degree program I was most interested in? Broadcast Journalism.

As my Strengths Insights added up I began to consider that maybe “journalism” wasn’t such a strange idea. And, maybe it doesn’t have to be a career. After all, lots of artistic people don’t do fine art for a living (ie. myself). I already have a job, that I’m pretty good at, that helps feed our family. I get a lot of the flexibility, and variety that I need in my work. Plus, it’s meaningful, purposeful, and rewarding. Obviously, I’m not changing careers.

These were the beginning thoughts that eventually led to The Bean Pot podcast. I think it was a two, maybe three year back-and-forth of debating if it was worth it. What ultimately pushed me over the edge was a conversation. A typical, casual talk over drinks with a friend. As we left the restaurant, I turned to them and said “Dude, I wish we had recorded that”.

That’s when it finally dawned on me. An epiphany. A moment of realizing just how much I love learning about who we are, and why we’re here. I love conversation, and solving problems by helping others maximize their own skills. I want to help humans be kinder to each other. I want to reduce suffering in the world. We need more understanding. We need more tolerance. We need more empathy.

I hope that finding my Strengths will help you find yours.