Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gobekli Tepe

Unless you are a follower of archaeology, you have probably never heard of Gobekli Tepe. That's too bad because it is perhaps the most significant and amazing archaeological discovery in modern time. And it has fascinating implications for anyone interested in the Bible and human history.

The Bible in Genesis 1 and 2 describes the beginning of humanity and the place where man first lived. In summary, man was created by God. His creation was relatively recent, in contrast to the usual evolutionary scenario of a gradual rise to humanness that compasses 100,000 years or more. Man was created unique. He was a creature with a spirit and great capacities, a being created in the image of God. And he first lived in a place describe as a garden east of Eden.

That biblical description becomes particularly interesting when we come to Gobekli Tepe.

Gobekli Tepe is a hill in southern Turkey where in 1991 a spectacular discovery was made. It was the discovery of an large and extremely ancient building whose purpose most likely was as a place of worship. It is magnificent in construction and the detail of the artwork carved into the stone pillars. And it has been dated using several different methods at 9,000 to 12,000 years ago. That is as much as 6,000 years earlier than the ruins of the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia. And it is as much as 7500 years earlier than the writing of the book of Genesis.

So, how are Gobekli Tepe and the Bible connected? First, Gobekli Tepe and the locations of the Garden of Eden are very close to one another. It may be that they are a mere several hundred miles apart. Both are closely connected to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Second,the dates are very close. The Bible records a genealogy for Adam that, allowing for gaps, can be stretched only to about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Third, early man is described in the Bible as having built cities, developed tools, created musical instruments, and as having an organized religion. It is the last that is most interesting.

Klaus Schmidt,the archaeologist who has done the most work at Gobekli Tepe, made the statement that our whole idea of how civilization developed has been set on its head by this discovery. It now appears that religion was the driving force of civilization, not agriculture. That fits perfectly with the Bible because the first activity besides food gathering recorded there (in chapter 4 of Genesis) was worship.

Of course, the worship at Gobekli Tepe can not be described as the worship of the God of the Bible. Rather it appears by the pictures and sculptures to have been animistic. Yet, that too correlates with the Bible's story, for the Bible tells us that men early corrupted the worship of the one true God and began to worship other things. Ultimately by chapter 6 in Genesis, worship focused on men of renown. And perhaps that correlates with the last mystery of Gobekli Tepe.

Strangely, the site declined. Over several centuries new temples were build on top of the original. But they were inferior in size and detail and artwork. Finally, the entire site was intentionally entombed - not destroyed, but entombed in rubble and sand. It was as if this civilization moved on from animism or something like that to the worship of other things. Yet, with a respect for the past that caused them to expend much hard labor and time in preserving it.

The work uncovering the mystery of Gobekli Tepe has only just begun. Schmidt expects it will take another fifty years to do the digging. And that may not uncover all the secrets. But so far this has proven to be the most exciting find for students of the Bible and archaeology in a long time. And again it seems, science is catching up to the Bible.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Is America Exceptional?

A recent comment by President Obama and reply by Russian President Putin brought to the fore the question whether America is exceptional. CNN followed the exchange with several opinion pieces. This one American 'Exceptionalism:' Who are they kidding? argued that there is nothing exceptional about America - at least, any more. That agrees with most of the posters on social media and Internet forums.

It appears that today thinking of America as exceptional is positively un-American. (See the comments on this CNN site "Despite fights about its merits, idea of American exceptionalism a powerful force through history."

Of course, "exceptional" is a slippery term. What did President Obama mean by it? What did Putin mean? And what do the posters on the various social media sites mean? It is hard to tell, though it appears everyone has an opinion. Nevertheless, despite the muddiness of the issue, I'd like to argue that America not only was exceptional but remains exceptional.

Let's begin at the beginning. Alexis de Tocqueville came to America in 1831 just a few decades after America became a nation. Though those who today reference and quote de Tocqueville and his book Democracy in America seem to mine the negatives, a reading of the book seems to me to clearly reveal de Tocqueville's admiration for America and his conviction that, at least in his day, America was exceptional. But in what way?

First, America was exceptional in the independence of her people. De Tocqueville writes: "Americans are taught from birth that they must overcome life’s woes and impediments on their own. Social authority makes them mistrustful and anxious, and they rely upon its power only when they cannot do without it." That is what made us and continues to make us pioneers. It makes America a seedbed of entrepreneurs and inventors. Though we created an industrial society in the 1800s and early 1900s that was the greatest any the world had seen, our strength always has been in the individual and in his or her ingenuity and drive.

Things have changed a bit lately, as most reading this will note. Since the 1930s we have created a welfare society that may itself be exceptional, though not admirable. That welfare mentality has undermined the individualism that made America great. But it remains that many of the most successful entrepreneurs are Americans.

A second way America was exceptional was in our government. De Tocqueville writes: "As the first people to face the redoubtable alternative I have just described, the Anglo-Americans were fortunate enough to escape from absolute power. 'Their circumstances, background, enlightenment, and, most of all, mores enabled them to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people.'" Of course, in de Tocqueville's time most other nations were monarchies; so when Americans chose, in contrast, to organize our government on the principles of democracy, we were exceptional in the world. Since then that model of government has proved attractive to many other peoples, so that today other nations have followed our example - a tacit recognition by those nations of the admirable and exceptional nature of America.

For us, the legacy of our nation's fathers remains in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And that legacy continues to mark America as exceptional in the protections accorded to our citizens. It is for that reason that Americans who value the principles passed on to us guard our constitutional rights energetically.

That brings me to the third way America is exceptional. The freedoms our constitution guarantees us have been a lure to people from around the world who, experiencing oppression and hopelessness abroad, have sought the sanctuary and freedom and opportunity of America. Between 1836 and the First World War more than 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. Among them were my great great grandparents, and probably yours.

But Europe was not the only source of immigrants. Take a drive around any American city and you will find Chinatowns, Little Italys, Latino, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and Middle Eastern neighborhoods - complete with shops, restaurants, and places of worship peculiar to the immigrants' ethnic origins. We are a nation of immigrants who came to America because of the freedom and opportunity and safety we believed we would find here. And most found what they sought. It is true that many other countries have welcomed immigrants, especially of late, but few have been so remarkably embracing as the United States.

Finally, America is exceptional in the character of our people. Part of that is certainly a product of our faith. Christianity built into us the virtue of personal responsibility and generosity. (Compare the nations that do not have that heritage. Few come close to the generosity of those nations whose culture is Christian.) Americans more than any other people give of our money and our selves to help others. We go to Africa to dig wells. We spend out lives in Asia to provide medical care where there is none. We built schools. We deliver disaster aid. We open our pocketbooks when there is a need here at home. We run missions in every city of America. And it goes on. Others are, of course, generous. But by most measures we are still the leaders, and not only the leaders but the example others have followed. In that I think we are genuinely exceptional.

The naysayers point to our failures. We still fail to provide health care to all equally. We still lag in some areas of education. We have poverty, though our poor are by most measures rich compared to the poor of many countries. We throw our weight around and make plenty of mistakes, Vietnam and, some say, Iraq among them. And we have often acted as a nation with only our own interests a heart - never mind that we rescued Europe and China from despots in the 1940s at great expense to American lives and material. But those are either continuing challenges that we are addressing or limited missteps that do not reflect the character of our people. Step back from these for a wider view, and America looks far different from the picture the naysayers paint.

America is good. America remains a land of freedom and opportunity. Americans are still people of character. America is, yes it is, exceptional.