Thursday, July 07, 2011

Knapsack 7-14

Notes From My Knapsack 7-14-11

Jeff Gill


Might Have Beens & Could Still Imagines



When someone is excited about a book they've read and want everyone (EVERYONE!) to read it, too, they can be quite tedious.


I know, I've been that person.


So let me try a different approach.


Imagine the entire Columbus metro area, including Granville & Newark & Lancaster and all around, in the wake of a horrible bio-disaster. A new infectious agent shows up out of nowhere, and kills off 95% of the population, sparing among the few a disproportionate number of the very young, and the very old.


Horrible, but not tedious, right?


Let's carry on the thought experiment by imagining that the area is largely sealed off from further interaction with anyone else for about a generation, call it 21 years.


After that interval, come back, whether to downtown Columbus or Granville itself. What do you find?


Well, probably no OSU or Denison – remember, the mystery disease left mostly the young & old in the 5% survivors – and other civic institutions are likewise obliterated. The buildings themselves: do you think much of the utility infrastructure did well over two decades? Maybe in a few isolated pockets, but most of the power plants and transmission systems would break down and not be repaired.


Schools would exist, but in a radically revamped form, given the survival priorities of the remnant and the strange new skew of demographics. Government, ditto, with a structure probably barely recognizable from pre-outbreak days. The flag, the pledge, witness oaths in trials, but otherwise . . .


In a nutshell, this is what Charles Mann tries to help us understand in his book "1491," now out in paperback. He gives a continent spanning overview of current research on Native peoples, from South America through the Hopewell culture of the Ohio valley, and makes his case that our sense of what "Indian" life was like both at and pre-European contact is radically warped.


What he shows us is a growing understanding among historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists that there were very, very early contacts (DeSoto comes in for some deservedly rough treatment) right on the heels of Columbus & 1492, then a gap, before the first so-called "contact narratives" are written.


During that crucial twenty-or-so year period, the first few transmissions of smallpox, influenza, measles, even the "common" cold, tore through the Americas devastating populations of Native peoples. Kill rates of 90 to 95% are looking more and more likely.


More significant from the cultural studies perspective is that we think we know what the continent "looked like" or how Indian nations "worked" & "behaved." We do not, because what is first written down is almost always a description of what American Indian life looked like after the "great dying" (as some Native accounts record it), and some time after, to boot.


While I'm obviously most drawn to the attempts to put Hopewell & Mississippian cultures of the Ohio Valley & Great Lakes in context, some of the richest material is looking at the Amazon River basin, long thought to be always unoccupied by people other than the most primitive subsistence tribes.


The growing new understanding of how Amazonian cultures worked & shaped their environments before 1491 is stunning, and holds hints of how much more we have to understand about Middle Woodland peoples of our area "before the dying time."


And the paperback of "1491" is out now, because Mann is publishing his newest book, titled "1493," next month. I cannot recommend these books too highly.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and a program assistant at the Newark Earthworks Center of OSU-N; tell him about your summer reads at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Faith Works 7-9

Faith Works 7-9-11

Jeff Gill


A Basket of Summer Fruit



In the eighth chapter of Amos in the Hebrew Scriptures, also known in the Christian Bible as the Old Testament, there is an ancient image with immediate relevance.


Amos, that dresser of sycamore trees and charcoal burner, a layman of the countryside, had a vision that the priests of the Jerusalem Temple apparently couldn't see. It was of "a basket of summer fruit."


They didn't have tomatoes in Israel of old, but summer fruit is close enough. Large, thin skinned, juicy, filled with taste and a savor that is only good for a season.


The thing about summer fruit is that it doesn't last, it can't last.


We have tomatoes year round now, but at the cost of thick skinned, solid jacketed, nearly tasteless globes of tantalizing red with the flavor of white insulating foam. That's not summer fruit.


A basket of summer fruit is a beautiful thing, but by just sitting there you can feel it: ripeness will soon turn to rot. Seasons turn, insects erupt, mold appears. You can put them up in jars or cook them into another dish, and it usually makes sense to just slice them and layer them with mozzarella and fresh basil leaves, with a touch of balsamic vinegar, but if you try to admire them on the counter for too long . . .


Amos goes on to explain that the vision God gave him said something about the land, the nation, the people of his day. They were themselves "a basket of summer fruit," lovely to behold just now, for a moment, but soon and very soon, things will change.


There is rot inherent in the rosiness, decay underneath the deliciousness, and doom about to ooze out of the very heart of what seems like hope and promise.


This is the vision that troubles many in faith communities today. It is a vision of America as "a basket of summer fruit," overripe and ready to burst. On all sides of the political spectrum, there's concern over how sustainable the American way of life really is; from the left, dependence on oil and consumption lights up Vegas and The Strip, but heads us towards an inevitable rupture. From the right, indifference to family structure in general, and to moral principles in public life opens up a seam that can pour out the vitals of our society across the countertop, leaving the husk fit only for the trash.


Prophetic visions, both, tied back to an ancient image of God speaking through prophets to offer the nation a different way.


The dilemma among many church bodies is that these not-dissimilar visions often end up in conflict, arguing about the right political path for believers to support. Progressives call for increased taxes on higher incomes to pay for more investment in alternative energy investigations and social program supports, while traditionalists cry for stronger statements and stricter laws on behalf of the values they understand as sustaining for us all.


Where I see an intersection between Amos' vision and both Christian factions is a reminder of the importance of sustainability. A society based on "whatever works for you" has little future, nor does one rooted in "I've got mine, good luck getting yours."


What all political efforts in faith communities could do better to reassert is that the believers' understanding sees no earthly quality or situation as truly sustainable in the long, the eternal haul.  Over time, only God is sustainable, since God sustains all creation.


So any position that doesn't start and to some degree come back around to end with God is almost certainly unsustainable in an ultimate sense. Neither green technology nor constitutional amendments are going to last forever.


Like most politics, church politics can easily lapse into the short term approach, and the winning strategy for the current election cycle. What congregations & denominations can best find unity around that will last is by proclaiming something, or someone, who is going to endure from yesterday, through today, and well beyond tomorrow.


If you've read Hebrews in the New Testament, you know where my thinking is going. Tomorrow I plan to preach this out a bit further at Central Christian in Newark at 8:30 & 10:30 am.


Meanwhile, pray for all those off at work to the many denominational & jurisdictional meetings taking place through the summer. May they find an eternal word to proclaim!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; no, he's not going to General Assembly this year. Tell him about your take on church politics at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.