Thursday, February 25, 2010

Jane Goodall

Not long ago I drove to a college in Georgia to hear Jane Goodall speak live in person. If you haven't heard of her, she's the "chimp lady" who's spent decades of her life living among and researching chimpanzees in the Gombe reserve in western Tanzania. Her work and findings are important to the scientific fields of primatology (study of primates), anthropology (study of humans), and paleoanthropology (study of human origins). Before Jane's discovery that chimps use tools to help find food, the scientific definition of what it means to be human included the ability to make tools. Upon Jane's discovery of chimpanzee toolmaking, the famous paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey said (and I paraphrase) that we either have to redefine man, redefine tool, or conclude that chimps are also human!

Jane's worldwide fame, contributions to science, and intriguing stories of life in East Africa were enough to draw me, but the real reason I went was more personal. I have at times struggled with the temptation that science can explain everything in the universe. Obviously science has explained a lot because we rely on tools and inventions everyday that were made possible by scientific knowledge. But the real trouble comes when science is assumed to be able to answer all the important questions of life: questions of meaning, morality, and mystery.

Jane Goodall represents a cadre of people who believe that the ultimate answers to what it means to be human lie in scientific pursuits. They make a great deal of how similar humans are to other animals, specifically primates, or the 'higher apes'. Viewing the evolution of humankind from an atheistic or agnostic point of view, the 'meaning of life' for humans tends to be sought in areas like biology and ecology and is left at that level.

I believe that much can be learned about what it means to be human by looking at our similarities with other animals (e.g. chimps, with whom we share 99% of our DNA code). That's great, but what about how we are different? The 1% of DNA is the source of such amazing characteristics as language, thought, consciousness, self-awareness, art, music, dance, and religion. Science is making advances in studying these uniquely human characteristics but still does not even come close to explaining them.

The truth is, even though people like Jane Goodall make a career of defining man through science, they also recognize the spirituality of man and seek spiritual expression. Jane Goodall came to Georgia to preach a gospel (though I'm sure she'd never put it that way). Her plea to us was for us to preserve animals and the environment and do good things for our 'human community'. This will lead to 'global peace', she claimed. That's it. That was her $50,000 message. I admit I have been tempted to seek ultimate answers to life's deep questions through the lens of science, but when I heard the empty, naive, and hopeless gospel proclaimed by one of anthropology's greatest icons, I realized, again, that there's a lot more to it than that.

I want to know what it means to be human because I want to be fully human. I want to be fully human because to be so is to be in the image of God. Being reflections of God is our calling; it is both a privilege and a responsibility. First we were made biologically in the image of God through Adam and Eve (this is where I believe we can learn from science). Second we have the opportunity to be recreated spiritually in the image of God through faith in Jesus Christ. That is what it means to be fully human and so to fulfill our destiny as a God-imaging species.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Close Colleagues

We are excited to announce that Justin & Hannah Gingerich (Amber's brother and sister-in-law), are planning to join Wycliffe! Justin hopes to work in construction & maintenance, while Hannah hopes to teach children and young people. We know their skills will be useful and their characters influential, wherever in the world they end up! Hey guys, we're proud of you.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hats of Providence

In Africa the sunrays burn really hot on your skin. Even though I have fairly dark complexion, I often wear a hat to protect my skin. I've worn several kinds of hats: a camo boonie hat, a tan Foreign Legion hat complete with ear and neck flaps, a cap, etc. But it wasn't until I saw a Spanish tour guide in Entebbe that I finally knew what kind of hat I really wanted. He was wearing an Australian outback hat like this one.

Driving through Oklahoma in December, we stopped at a Cherokee craft shop where I found a Minnetonka fold-up leather hat. The price was decent, and because I wanted one so bad I convinced myself that the size XL would fit (I guess I expected my head to grow at some point). I went ahead and got the XL, but my head never got bigger. I hate it when that happens. A few weeks later, I sent the hat back to the factory and asked for an exchange.

Meanwhile, a friend from our Tallahassee church fellowship group had acquired a couple of these fold-up leather hats. He kept a size M to wear himself and another M for his wife. A third, size L, he didn't have a need for, so he went to the Post Office to send it back. Waiting in line at the Post Office, our friend suddenly got a gut feeling that he should hang on to the hat. He knew that because so many people compliment him on his hat, there would be a good chance he could give this one away as a gift.

At our meeting last week, I complimented this friend on his hat (we hadn't seen him in over two years). I told him I had gotten one like it but that it was too big. He asked what kind it was. I said "Minnetonka". He took his hat off and showed me that his was that brand. He asked what size I wear. I said "large". Too bad, because he had a size M just like the one I had got (with a mesh top). I turned to say something to another friend, when the friend with the hat just kind of disappeared. Minutes later he reappeared and gently pushed a box into my hands. I looked at it, then up at him in surprise. "What's this?", I asked. "Open it", he said. When I opened it, out came a lovely, new Australian Outback leather fold-up hat, size L. "It's yours", he said.

What's the big deal with this hat story? Well, it's in moments like that when one feels the little delights of being part of the loving family of God. Thanks, Mark!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ik: The mountain people

Some folks have asked us recently if there are any books written about the Ik. As far as we know, only one book has been written entirely about the Ik (another specifically about the grammar of Ik has been written in German). That book is called The Mountain People, written by a British anthropologist named Colin Turnbull. Turnbull lived among the Ik off and on for a couple of years in the 1960s, and the book is a description of the Ik, his experience among them, and his reaction to them. The book paints a very harsh and negative picture of the Ik, making it sound like the Ik were sub-human. Turnbull went as far as saying that Ik society was beyond saving.

If you want to read any one piece of literature about the Ik, start with The Mountain People.

What may not be evident from a first reading of the book, though, is that it is almost as much about the author as it is about the Ik. In other words, the book gives us insight into Colin Turnbull's inner life and the struggles he faced, even though it often projects those onto the Ik. Perhaps that's why the book has been so controverial, and why Turnbull was so criticized for his writing. Moreover, giving us a window into the lives of the Ik through the life of Turnbull, the book ends up being a profound glimpse into the dark side of human nature.

What helped me understand what and how Turnbull wrote on the Ik was Roy Richard Grinker's biography of Turnbull called In the Arms of Africa. We all tend to fear and criticize what we don't understand. Before, Turnbull seemed like the bad guy, the enemy. But after reading this biography, I came to pity him for many things and even admire him for others. I pity him for his often disillusioned idealism about the goodness of humankind and for his litany of tumultuous relationships. I admire him for his pursuit of "love, beauty, and goodness" and for seeing anthropology as an art as well as a science. I personally am like Turnbull in that having grown up in minority sub-cultures (Mennonite, home-schooled, missionary, etc.), I tend to side with the minority and want to champion their rights. Furthermore, in the past two years in Karamoja, I have experienced in my own heart some of the feelings of betrayal, horror, and disgust that Turnbull said he experienced. This biography by Grinker led me to stop thinking "how I can disprove Turnbull?" and rather start thinking "what can I learn about human nature through the Ik, Turnbull, and their now infamous acquaintance?"

Besides these two books, a number of articles are available that touch on various aspects of Ik history, culture, and language. I may be able to provide some of them to you upon request.

Happy reading!