Shuah Jones, 15, stuffed clothes under her bed blankets in the shape of a body, grabbed her diary and Bible, and crept downstairs. Wearing a long blue linen skirt and clunky buckled sandals, she opened the door, slipped outside, and paused to look back at her house: a historic residence in Plymouth, Massachusetts, known as the Blue Blinds, where she lived with other members of her church. Good riddance, she thought. On the street she broke into a run toward the only payphone she knew of, at a gas station near the center of town, half a mile away. She’d never been outside alone at night before. As she sprinted down the main drag, Court Street, men in bars called out and wolf-whistled. She was terrified. When she reached the phone, she called her brother Noah, who told her to wait for him in a parking lot next to the Blue Blinds, so she ran all the way back. He was an hour away. She hid in a bush, heart thumping. When at last he pulled into the lot, she leaped into his car.
“Just breathe,” he told her as they drove away. “Breathe.”
If a Middle Eastern man from 2,500 years ago found himself on his home territory in 2015, he would be shocked by the modern innovations, and not just electricity, airplanes, and iPhones. Arabic as an official language in over two dozen countries would also seem as counterintuitive to him as if people had suddenly started keeping aardvarks as pets.
In our time-traveler’s era, after all, Arabic was an also-ran tongue spoken by obscure nomads. The probability that he even spoke it would be low. There were countless other languages in the Middle East in his time that he’d be more likely to know. His idea of a “proper” language would have been Aramaic, which ruled what he knew as the world and served, between 600 and 200 B.C.E., as the lingua franca from Greece and Egypt, across Mesopotamia and Persia, all the way through to India. Yet today the language of Jesus Christ is hardly spoken anywhere, and indeed is likely to be extinct within the next century. Young people learn it ever less. Only about half a million people now speak Aramaic—compared to, for example, the five and a half million people who speak Albanian.
How does a language go from being so big to being on the verge of dying out entirely?
One morning in October 1536, in the Flemish town of Vilvorde, William Tyndale was led by his guards from his cell to a cross in the public square, to which he was tied at the ankles and waist with chains, and at the neck with a loose hemp cord.
Contrary to popular legend, he was not burned alive. Thieves and beggars were burned alive, women were burned alive, but Tyndale was a scholar and degraded priest: he was afforded the courtesy of being strangled first. When the procurer-general gave the signal, an executioner standing behind the cross pulled the hemp cord tight around Tyndale’s neck until he was dead. Then he lit the pile of brush and gunpowder that had been built up around the cross, and stood back.
Translation has always had its fair share of occupational hazards, but the execution of William Tyndale is one of rare examples in literary history of a translator killed for his work. It happened in an era when translation was taken extremely seriously, not just because it allowed ordinary people to read the Bible in their own languages, but because it implied those languages were as capable of containing God’s Word as Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Tyndale’s New Testament didn’t just imply this: it proved it, giving readers a Gospel that was both noble and familiar—a book of shepherds, the kitchen, the market, sons.
When my great-grandmother, Retaw “Dandeen” Mccoy, passed away in 2005 at the age of ninety-nine, we gave her a proper Presbyterian funeral in her Western Pennsylvania hometown. Afterward, in the church basement, the ladies of Springdale Presbyterian did what they’ve always done: served a funeral lunch. There were finger sandwiches. There were the big pans of rigatoni you see at just about every Pittsburgh-area gathering. There were cookies.
And then there were the Jell-O salads. Dish after dish of jiggly, shining gelatin molded into rings, braids—even a jellied tuna salad in the shape of a fish. Cherry red with fruit, pistachio green with nuts and marshmallows, a clear lemon yellow studded with vegetables: it was as if we’d stepped backward in time. Dandeen, who raised children and grandchildren in the mid-century glory days of the Jell-O salad, would have loved it.
History is dotted with simultaneous independent discoveries. From the Möbius strip to the electric telegraph, great minds sometimes do think alike. And for decades now, the Asperger-Kanner mind meld has been the accepted wisdom of the discovery of autism.
Steve Silberman, a writer for Wired, had worked on a book about autism for about a year. It was a topic with which he was familiar; he’d written a widely read story in 2001 on the prevalence of the disorder, which is estimated to affect one in 68 children. The new project aimed, in part, to document the history of autism research, and Silberman had a hunch that the conventional wisdom surrounding the allegedly serendipitous discovery of autism by two clinicians working independently was, at best, incomplete.
It’s a famous story, frequently told, including in The Atlantic. As Silberman put it, fourteen years ago:
In one of the uncanny synchronicities of science, autism was first recognized on two continents nearly simultaneously. In 1943, a child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner published a monograph outlining a curious set of behaviors he noticed in 11 children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A year later, a pediatrician in Vienna named Hans Asperger, who had never seen Kanner’s work, published a paper describing four children who shared many of the same traits. Both Kanner and Asperger gave the condition the same name: autism—from the Greek word for self, autòs—because the children in their care seemed to withdraw into iron-walled universes of their own.
Amazing! But not entirely crazy, either.
The point is that in the end nobody, at least nobody with a proper command of church history, believes that their church today, in visible outward terms, is the same as the apostolic church in terms of both belief or practice. The Eastern Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky condemns what he calls “a harmful primitivism” in the Vincentian Canon to believe only what has “always” been believed.
What does this discussion on the fact of change have to do with the visibility of the Church? It boils down to the incompatibility of two claims:
(1) My Church does not Change.
(2) My Church is Substantially Visible
However, if one accepts that in historical and empirical terms there is a difference between one’s church’s past and one’s church’s present, then the two claims are incompatible. One can maintain that one’s Church does not change, but must sacrifice the visibility of the Church and not identify the Church with every visible act or writing of the Church. The alternative is to maintain that the Church is substantially visible but deny that there has been any visible change. This alternative however is basically untenable in the light of what we know now about the writings of the early church and in the light of the historical facts and empirical differences.
The newest revelation about the first permanent English settlers in America may explain some of the disastrous dissension in the first years of Jamestown.
Four newly identified leaders buried in the chancel of Historic Jamestowne’s 1608 church may have included a spy or a secret practitioner of a traitorous religion, archaeologists and historians revealed Tuesday in Washington at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
A silver reliquary box atop the coffin of early Jamestown leader Gabriel Archer raises questions about who he really was and who he was really supporting. A reliquary would traditionally be associated with Catholic rather than Anglican beliefs. Was Archer secretly loyal to the Pope or even a spy for Catholic Spain?
Many words have been devoted to the literature and lives of two of the twentieth century’s most beloved novelists, friends, and World War I veterans, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Unique among such works, however, is Joseph Loconte’s new book A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. While many books find themselves reiterating the same often-tired textual analyses of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Lord of the Rings, Loconte—a professor of history at The King’s College—chooses to frame his work differently. This book is devoted, not to discussing Tolkien or Lewis, but to instead describing the horrors of trench warfare and the religious and spiritual rhetoric permeating contemporary culture. Lewis and Tolkien experienced trench warfare first-hand, as members of the British Expeditionary Force in the Great War. Loconte recounts a number of Lewis and Tolkien’s wartime experiences—including Tolkien’s service at the Battle of the Somme and Lewis’ injury from shell shrapnel—and expounds on how these events influenced both authors’ future literary work. This book is especially welcome as the centennial anniversaries of the Great War continue these next few years. The memories of that war have al but faded, so the literary echoes of that conflict remain all the more important.
When he was five years old, Kevin Wheatcroft received an unusual birthday present from his parents: a bullet-pocked SS stormtrooper’s helmet, lightning bolts on the ear-flaps. He had requested it especially. The next year, at a car auction in Monte Carlo, he asked his multimillionaire father for a Mercedes: the G4 that Hitler rode into the Sudetenland in 1938. Tom Wheatcroft refused to buy it and his son cried all the way home.
When Wheatcroft was 15, he spent birthday money from his grandmother on three second world war Jeeps recovered from the Shetlands, which he restored himself and sold for a tidy profit. He invested the proceeds in four more vehicles, then a tank. After Wheatcroft left school at 16, he went to work for a Leicestershire engineering firm, and then for his father’s construction company. He spent his spare time touring wind-blasted battle sites in Europe and North Africa, searching for tank parts and recovering military vehicles that he would ship home to restore.
Wheatcroft is now 55, and according to the Sunday Times Rich List, worth £120m. He lives in Leicestershire, where he looks after the property portfolio of his late father and oversees the management of Donington Park Racetrack and motor museum (which he also owns). The ruling passion of his life, though, is what he calls the Wheatcroft Collection – widely regarded as the world’s largest accumulation of German military vehicles and Nazi memorabilia. The collection has largely been kept in private, under heavy guard, either in the warren of industrial buildings Wheatcroft owns near Market Harborough, or at his homes in Leicestershire, the Charente in south-west France and the Mosel Valley in south-west Germany. There is no official record of the value of Wheatcroft’s collection, but some estimates place it at over £100m.
Four years ago I mentioned a wonderful documentary called Wings Over the Golden Gate, which was produced in the 1930s. The scenes of Depression-era San Francisco were fascinating. But what riveted me was the language.
The narrator of that film spoke in a way instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen footage of FDR-era newsreels, or for that matter listened to recordings of FDR himself. It was a style of phony-British “Announcer Speak” that dominated formal American discourse from the 1920s to maybe the 1950s—and now hasentirely disappeared.
I mention this because today I was listening to a rebroadcast of a great 2012Fresh Air interview with the musician and writer Michael Feinstein, which included a rare, brief interview that George Gershwin had done on Rudy Vallee’shyper-popular radio show in 1933. The amazing thing was that even George Gershwin sounded this way!
Don’t miss the follow-up post.