Monday, July 20, 2009

History ain't what it used to be

When I was in 5th grade, our teacher decided to have an afternoon in the library. This would be a time when we could pick anything off the shelf and we didn’t have to report on it. I don’t remember why, but I picked up a book on Columbus. It didn’t sound anything like what I had learned up until then.

I had been told, by teachers, that Columbus was turned away by the King of Portugal because he believed the world was flat and of course Columbus was smarter than that. This book said that Columbus had asked for future royalties from all land he might discover and that he be named “Great Admiral of the Ocean” and appointed governor of whatever he found and all of his descendants would inherit that title. He made a similar proposal to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain and was again rejected twice before being accepted. The extravagance of those offers and the advice of experts on navigation were why he was rejected. He really didn’t know where he was going, or where he was once he got there.

The details of the negotiations that ended with the voyage of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were always glossed over, or completely ignored in primary school. Business negotiations may seem like pretty dry stuff, but in this case, they make the history more interesting, and changing them into a story of Kings and Queens not believing in our hero makes matters worse, not to mention obscuring other history of Greek science and earlier maritime navigation.

Standing there at 11 years old, I didn’t know what to do. I can clearly remember looking up at my teacher from the book as this seemingly terrible truth was revealed to me and she was smiling. I wasn’t sure if she was aware of what I was reading and was happy for my discovery, or if she didn’t have any idea and her look was one of blissful ignorance. I assumed the latter, since she had taught me something very different. I had no one to turn to for answers because it seemed everyone I had trusted up until then was in on the conspiracy. It was difficult to trust any authority from then on.

Never did I hear the story of Columbus being stripped of his governorship when he did not deliver riches that he promised, or of the story of him tricking the natives by saying he would “take away the moon” when he knew that a lunar eclipse was coming. Over the next couple decades more of this story was revealed through the efforts of the descendants of the people who were negatively affected by the arrival of Europeans here in the Americas. Until I read Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, I didn’t have the full story. That book adds a lot to the history presented in public schools, and does it in a much more entertaining way. It also analyzes why our history text books are so watered down and so out of balance with actual events. I wish it were as simple as a good conspiracy theory, but the dynamics of it involve all of us.

Recently I was looking through the books in my church’s library. It’s actually just two bookcases in the basement, but it’s our library. I came across a book titled The Bible as History, written in 1981. I thumbed through it and found that it did not have the location of Eden. It started out talking about something called the “Fertile Crescent” and how a tribe from the West invaded this area. It said there may have been a man named Abraham who came from that tribe, or the biblical Abraham may be a composite character. I had seen a movie in the 70’s that showed how parts of Noah’s Ark had been found, but this book did not seem to take those accounts seriously. It talked about another book, Gilgamesh, that had been written earlier than the Bible and compared its flood story to the Noah story. They are remarkably similar.

This time I was not confused. I have the context to understand this history book. I know I can talk to my pastor about it. It is not being taught in every child’s Sunday School class, but I know it is in mine, because I’m the teacher. We may never know how all the stories in the Bible developed. Just absorbing all of the historical information that exists today would be impossible for one person. The further back in time you go, history pretty quickly becomes a matter of probability.

In "The Bible as History" book, it tells the story of the discovery of the city of Ur, where the Gilgamesh story was found on stone tablets. It was a pile of rocks in the desert, then around 1850 somebody decided to try to figure out what it was. In the process, they hacked a lot of it away. Archeology has improved since then, but who knows what story they will be telling about us 150 years from now, about how we brushed away a critical layer of history thinking it was just dirt. Let’s hope we do a better job than when I was in grade school.

No comments:

Post a Comment