This is from walkabout

   This is from walkabout

"None of those Bible passages says, 'act thus and thus, and you'll go to Heaven.'  They say things like, 'you belong to God: here's how you can show that you're worthy of him.'  Or, 'you are God's people: set yourselves apart from the heathens.'  It's taken centuries of effort by the best brains of the church to explain how these clear statements can come to mean their exact opposite, i.e., the essence of the business model I just mentioned.  The resulting brainwash is so powerful that we automatically read such Bible passages backward like you just did."

"What about the rich guy who couldn't go through the needle's eye, then?" I asked.  "He was  told to give all he had to the poor, and that would get him to heaven."

"You got me there," smiled Adrian.  "Let's say that he's the exception that confirms the rule.  The story of the rich young man serves to show us how little legalism can achieve.  He was a righteous Jew and had observed the Law all his life.  Yet  he failed the test that Jesus gave him.  What this proved was that he couldn't or wouldn't follow the second part of the Greatest Commandment, to love his neighbor as himself.  He was too enamored of his wealth to let go of it, and that doomed him."

"But wait a little!"  I interjected.  "What's all the talk about books being opened on Judgment Day?  Eventually, we'll all be judged on our deeds, won't we?"

Through the window of the plane, Mary could see a shore shaped like a large crescent, with a ribbon of blinding white sand forming a nearly unbroken beach.  A motorway, crowded with traffic, ran parallel to the beach, and beyond it picturesque little houses climbed up the steep hills like a rock garden of red tile roofs.  The city of Palermo spread out its bulk near the middle of the bay, looking as drab as any city would look in this paradisal setting, while further on to the west, the top half of a conical mountain rose triumphantly through its dense cover of suburbia and ancient-looking monumental buildings.

The last one-hour leg of the trip from Minneapolis had been more trying than the entire flight from the States over to Rome.  After the freedom of the jumbo, Anne had been fretful and frustrated over having to stay put in her seat in a small DC-9.  She had hardly slept during the Atlantic crossing, keeping her mother awake as well, and Mary knew their jet lag would be twice as difficult because of the night they had missed out on.

While she tried to keep Anne interested in the sights along the shore, Mary was going through a long overdue reckoning with herself.  Why had her marriage failed so miserably, and in such a patently unspectacular way?  Had Michael found her so boring that he had simply resorted to the bottle as a surrogate?  Or were they incompatible from the start, like Mary's mother had always said?  Michael's Anglo-Saxon heritage was so solid and so American, while Mary's own identity was always balancing between the British roots of her father and the urgent sense of being part of the Italian culture of her mother's family.  Now, with the divorce behind her, she had determined to seek out her Sicilian relatives and begin to form some kind of understanding of where she really belonged.

"Mom, why couldn't we have stayed in Rome for a couple of days, at least?" Anne asked.  "All the kids will think I'm nuts to go all the way to Italy and never see Rome!"

"We'll see Rome on the way back," Mary told her.  "We'll have to attend this funeral first."

"But I never knew that old man, so why should I go to his funeral?" Anne insisted. Mary fully agreed with the principle of that; but she hadn't seemed to have any choice; when she had called up her cousin Antonino from the Linate airport to report their safe landing on Italian soil, he had told her to continue directly to Palermo in such a commanding manner that Mary just went on to the domestic booking counter without ever questioning herself as to why she was changing her plans.

"He was a brother of your great-grandfather," Mary answered her daughter.  "My grandfather died twenty-five years ago in his late sixties, and this old man was his youngest brother.  All the people we're going to meet are our relatives, and since we happened to be
coming here, they just figured that we should go along to the funeral.  It's good manners, that's all."

"Can't we go shopping first?"  Anne was twelve and had discovered the lure of the shopping mall some time earlier.  She proudly called herself and her best friend "mallies"; they would hang around Southtown Plaza in a seemingly aimless manner, drifting in and out of stores, intensely aware of what was going on and of who was paying attention to them.  Mary was at a loss as to where the fashion had come from, but it certainly was conditioning her daughter to be a true American woman of today, living by and for the TV and the shopping centre.

"Perhaps," she answered, just to get out of it.  The plane was now preparing to land, and Anne was, for the moment, occupied with what was going on.  They were soon on their way to collect their luggage, and Mary kept a lookout for Antonino, whom she had never met.  She needn't have worried; Antonino spotted the two Americans without trouble and greeted them like old friends.  His warm embrace and the kiss on her cheek gave Mary an overwhelming sense of belonging; this was the way her
grandparents had always treated her when she was a little girl.  Too bad they had to die so long ago; she could have done with more of this.

"Have you had anything to eat?" Antonino inquired.  When Mary affirmed that they had been served a nice snack on board, Antonino told them that they would leave for the countryside immediately.  Everyone else was already in Villadoro for the wake; only Antonino had stayed behind to pick up the travellers.  They packed their suitcases into Antonino's little Fiat, leaving just enough room for Anne in the back seat, and set off along the road Mary had seen from the plane.

"It's bad luck that Nonno Sergio happened to die just now," Antonino said.  "You could have had a nice, restful weekend in Palermo, done some swimming at the beach, but now we have to go to the country.  You will see Palermo later."  "Who shot him?" asked Anne.  "I knew you'd say that," Mary groaned, as Antonino threw a quick glance at Anne through the rear-view mirror.  "Nonno Sergio was very old, about 85," Antonino answered.  He died of pneumonia.  It was a very wet winter up there and he didn't get better after spring came."  "Why didn't they put him in
a nursing home?" Anne ventured.  "He'd have been warm and snug there."  Antonino didn't bother to reply.

The car soon turned off from the motorway and headed up into the mountains.  Mary had never seen a road like the one they were travelling on; it was narrow and worn, and wound its way between cliffs and precipices, with hardly any barriers on either side.  In one spot a recent earthquake had caused a landslide that had made half of the road simply disappear.  Antonino slowed down just perceptibly and mumbled about the inefficiency of the road authorities.

Soon, Anne complained about getting sick and had to be let out for some air as they came to a small town.  Looking around, Mary was awed by the lack of life around them.  It was Saturday, just after noon, and the shops were closed; from the houses, she could smell the aromas of Italian food being prepared.  The men were resting, the women were cooking.  It suddenly occurred to Mary that she must be putting Antonino out--he wasn't used to doing anything at this time of day, and especially not for a woman.  Mary felt acutely embarrassed, all the more so as Anne was getting crankier by the minute, and she desperately searched herself for that familiar self-assuredness of the American woman she had always thought she was.  Antonino was ten years younger than she, in his early twenties, but here, in the culture were Mary belonged through ancestry if not by choice, he exuded the absolute authority of a father or an elder brother.

After another hour that felt like an eternity, they arrived in Villadoro, a minute village of white little houses huddled together in the middle of olive green bean fields and vineyards, blanketing the rolling hills in every direction until the mountains broke through in their abrupt quest for the sky.  Now there were more signs of life; sounds of a meal being served greeted them from every house, except for the one where they entered.  A black flag hung out of an upstairs window, and the mournful wailing of women rose and fell, filling the household with gloom.

The wake had been going on since early that day, and it would continue until the next morning; the entombment was to follow that same Sunday.  Mary had it hard to understand how everything could be done so quickly, with all the members of the family seemingly upstairs taking part in the wake, but concluded that the explanation had to be the absence of a funeral director and all the elaborate, and expensive, ritual his profession imposes on her compatriots.

Before they went upstairs to join the family, Antonino introduced Mary and Anne to the women who were in the kitchen preparing snacks for everyone, as formal meals weren't taken during the wake.  One was Rosa, his wife; his sister Giovanna also was there, while the matron of the house, Aunt Lucia, presided over everything that went on.  Lucia soon had them seated and fed, and even Anne stopped complaining for a while.  Rosa, too, spoke English, and took over as interpreter, while Antonino disappeared after a quick bite of pizza.

Lucia's husband, Salvatore, had received word of their arrival and came down to greet them.  Mary immediately recognised her mother's cousin from the old photos she had seen, although Salvatore must by now have been about sixty.  After his father's death, Salvatore was the head of the family; even Anne could sense his dignity and behaved quite politely.

Salvatore inquired about their health and the journey, and was presently satisfied that they had been well cared for so far.  "And how is your husband, Michele?" he asked.  Mary had been getting used to the language during the past hours, finding that she could understand most of what was being said.  Her grandparents had always spoken Sicilian with her, and she felt it coming back to her more and more.  Hence, she had a few seconds to think before the question was translated.

Mary felt her heart sink.  Here, it would be incomprehensible, and scandalous, that she had been divorced from Michael.  His alcoholism was not an issue; all men drink wine, and all women put up with it--anyway, here, alcohol was not known as a problem.  Mary just couldn't bring herself to admit to the divorce, fearing more for the disgrace she would bring on Salvatore and his family than for what might befall herself, and determined to pretend it had never happened.  Rarely had she needed Michael as much as she needed him now, when he was six thousand miles away and not even her husband anymore.

"He's fine," she replied, and proceeded to explain why he hadn't come along--his work was keeping him too busy.  Then Anne almost blew it.  "Mom and Dad have just..." she began, and stopped short as Mary stepped on her foot with considerable weight.  "...bought a new house," Mary filled in, while Anne received a pinch for good measure.  She was not a stupid child; for the moment, she shut up, meaning to find out later why she had been corrected.  Fortunately, Lucia came about with some goodies for dessert, and Mary gently led the discussion onto other matters.

Upstairs, Nonno Sergio's body was laid out in an open coffin in a room that seemed too large for the house. Mary and Anne were invited to pay their respects to the dead man they had never known.  Mary felt it was such a shame she had missed out on him by just a day; he could have told her things about her grandfather and grandmother that she'd never find out now--why they had left for America, what their childhood had been like, what they had written home about.  Mary was happy that Anne made no outrageous comments, as she didn't know how she could have coped
with them just then.

They were assigned two hard, straight-backed chairs along a side wall, and sat down.  Family members around them, whose names Mary would have to catch up on later, were sobbing in grief.  The women cried aloud.  Mary felt immensely moved and was close to tears herself; thrown into the bereavement, as she had been, with much less warning than her relatives.  Then Anne broke the spell.  "Mom, when can we leave?" she asked.

Mary knew that there were eighteen more hours to go of the wake.  She and Anne would have to sit it out, come what may, as they were family members, bound by custom, and guests, dependent on the hospitality and the approval of their hosts.  Although other children and teenagers were present, there was no reason to hope that Anne would last that long; Anne had never had to endure anything beyond her attention span; she was used to being continuously entertained.  Mary's childhood had been so different--she had always taken part in household work together with her mother and grandmother; she had grown up in the closeness of a clan just like this one, where aunts, uncles, and cousins were always around and just as much a part of the family as your own parents, brothers, and sisters.

"I want to go shopping!" Anne declared, before Mary had figured out how to break the news to her.  "Would you cut it out!" Mary nearly yelled, instantly regretting her lack of diplomacy.  Fortunately, no-one around them understood English.  "We can't go just yet; we have to be polite and stay here as long as the others," she corrected herself, squeezing Anne's hand as a gesture of reassurance.  "Will the shops be open still when it's over?" Anne asked.

"Look, the shops around here are closed already for the weekend," Mary said.  "When someone has died like this, the whole family sits up for twenty-four hours crying for them.  After the funeral, we'll go back to Palermo and then we'll go to the shops."

"But why do we have to sit here all that time?" Anne demanded, her voice rising with irritation.  "We didn't know him!  We aren't part of his family.  At least I'm not," she announced, making ready to get up and go.

Mary was panicked.  "Please behave yourself!" she pleaded.  "We're guests here, and we've got to do what's expected of us.  Can't you understand that things are different here?"

"Well, I don't like Italy, if this is what it's like.  You can keep it," Anne answered.  "I thought we'd be going to the beach and the shops, and see the Coliseum, not just sit on a chair all day.  Why did you want to come to a place like this?"

"I didn't know there'd be a funeral as soon as we got here," Mary whispered.  "Look, you just sit there and be quiet.  If you make a scandal now, we'll be out there on the street with no car and no hotel.  People are staring at us already."

The last statement wasn't quite true, because their subdued conversation hadn't made any impact over the wailing of the mourners.  It had the desired effect, though, and Anne kept quiet for several minutes.  Meanwhile, Mary was doing some more soul-searching.  She could remember the wakes after her grandfather and her grandmother quite vividly; she had been less than seven years old then but she had lived the grieving; the wake had had true meaning to her.  She had never shown such disrespect for her elders as every child and teenager seemed to harbour these days.  What was so different?

One thing that made it harder to raise children to a sense of respect and responsibility would have to be the sheer convenience of modern life.  Machines and service businesses did everything; there were no jobs left for children to do.  If you really wanted something done, you had to bargain with your kids; let the son have the car if he'd mow the lawn, pay the daughter for babysitting.  One or two generations ago, children knew that their contribution was essential to keeping the household going, and they made it as a matter of course.  At this rate, today's kids would grow up thinking the world owed them a living.  Wonderful material for marketers and politicians...

Anne was making noises again, and Mary braced herself for another argument.  But this time nature was on Mary's side.  The jet lag was finally hitting home, and Anne laid her head on Mary's lap and fell asleep.  It was now past seven in the morning back in Minnesota, and Mary, too, felt the loss of a night's rest.  The fact that they were attending a wake seemed to be quite unimportant.  Mary quietly drifted off to sleep on her chair.


The New Clan

The New Clan

This was written sometime in the early nineties.  It's supposed to deal with the Stone Age, but as it turns out, there are Iron Age elements in it, as well.  But so be it.

"Mother, when will Nuk come back?" asked Fima.  She was sitting on a rock in the sunshine, outside the entrance of the cave where she lived with her family.  She was scraping the skin of a dall sheep with a sharp stone tool; later, her mother would make it into a tunic for Fima's younger sister who was growing out of her old one.

"Tomorrow or the day after," answered Seta, Fima's mother.  "The men have been away for six days.  They'll have killed something and by now, they'll have eaten their fill.  When they can't eat any more, they'll come home with the rest of the meat."

Fima was a sensible girl and she did a lot of thinking.  She knew her family life was much like everybody else's, but she wished some things could be changed.

"Why is Nuk always so grumpy when he's home?" she asked.  "He hardly talks to you and never to us kids, and he is so rough with you.  If we didn't keep out of his way, I suppose he'd be giving us a hard time, too."

"That's the way the men are," said Seta.  "They grow up fighting and teasing, and when they become men, they have to show how tough they are.  After that they always do things together; they hunt together, fight together, and relax together.  No man wants to be different from the others.  We'll just have to put up with them, I guess."

But Fima wasn't satisfied.  "I just don't like the way he treats you.  Always when he turns up, the first thing he wants to do is mate.  Then he bosses you around, and sometimes he beats you.  Couldn't women live in one place and men in another?  He doesn't bring home that much meat that we couldn't do without it.  We harvest a lot of grain and herbs and we could live nicely on that!"

"It isn't that simple," answered Seta.  "The men own their women, just like they own their clothes and their weapons.  Their need to mate is so strong that they would find us wherever we went and bring us back.  And there's another thing.  If a woman doesn't mate, she gets no children, and without children, a woman is nothing."

Fima felt that she should have known that there was something like that to it.  Twice now, at the full moon, she had bled, and she knew that it meant she was ready for marriage.  Although she didn't cherish the thought, she was mentally preparing for the day when some man, much older than herself, would come along and give Nuk an axe or something for her, and take her away.  Many times over, she had seen it happen to other girls, and soon after, they would begin having babies.

Nevertheless, Fima didn't want to give up the idea of a tranquil life with her mother and her siblings.  She had no trouble with being romantic and practical at the same time, and she continued hatching up ideas as she went along doing her chores.

It was a sunny day in late winter, and Seta had decided it would be their bath day.  Nobody else washed in the winter; you had to be pretty hungry to go into the icy creek even to catch a fish.  But Seta would have it her way: her family was to be clean, her home and her things had to be clean, and if it happened to be winter, well, just leave it to Seta, and she'd take care of it.

The creek ran just in front of Seta's cave, and directly below the cave entrance, Seta had enlarged a small pond until it was as large as the bearskin rug Fima slept in.  That morning, Fima's elder brother, Bemro, had fetched twice the usual amount of firewood.  In the fire she kept burning just inside the mouth of the cave, Seta had heated a number of round boulders that she and Bemro had collected for the purpose.  Now, at high noon, she took a stout stick and rolled the stones down into the pond, and its water would stay nice and warm long enough for the whole family to get clean.

Bemro had heard the hissing of the water from where he had been playing with his friends, and came running to be the first in the bath.  Although he was a big and strong lad, Bemro was kind and obedient, and he enjoyed helping his mother and sister wash the younger children.  He made a game of it and got the little ones to enjoy themselves thoroughly.  Fima loved her big brother dearly and kept hoping that he wouldn't change and become mean like the other men when he was to be initiated later in the spring.

Seta had more than one little secret to her name.  Once, after a forest fire that had been quenched by a heavy rain, she had gone foraging and had come upon a boar that had been overcome by the flames.  As Seta had gone to cut up the meat, she had found a strange, half-liquid substance under the pig.  She could see that its fat had melted in the heat and had been mixed with the ashes from the fire.  The rain had kept falling on the burning forest floor, and the result had been the dark, slippery stuff Seta had found.  As she felt it and rubbed it between her hands, she realized that it was removing the soot from her fingers.  She went and washed her hands in a puddle and they came out cleaner than she had seen them in a long time.

So Seta took some of the substance home with her in one of the containers she always carried for unexpected finds, and started applying it to everything in sight.  Since she knew how to make more of it, she never needed to skimp.  In time Seta came to call the substance soap, and that was what she was now rubbing herself and her children with.

After the bath, when everyone was feeling and smelling good, lunch had been eaten, and Bemro had carried the boulders back up and gone off to play, Fima once again brought up her plan.

"Mother, why don't we just get rid of Nuk?" she asked.  "At night when he comes home from the temple, he's always tired and groggy.  We could just whack him over the head with an axe, and then we wouldn't have to put up with him anymore!"

"There's something to what you're saying," answered Seta.  "But bashing his head in wouldn't be the right way to kill him.  The other men and the shaman would find out, and they would come and kill us, too.  We'll have to think of a way to do it so nobody will suspect us!"

"Why would they want to kill us for it?" Fima asked in mock surprise.  "He's deserved it , and many times over.  Something like that should be our business and nobody else's."

"Not many men would sleep well in their caves if they didn't have the law to protect them," Seta said with a tinge of bitterness in her voice.  "The men make the law, and the law says that they can treat their property any way they want.  It also says that a woman who rebels ever so little is dangerous and has to be put to death,  You and I have to be extra careful, because we're hairless and smart like the shaman, and he fears us greatly because of it.  If we weren't so useful to Nuk, we'd probably have been killed long ago.

"But yes, I'd like to get rid of him, too.  Only I'll have to think of what becomes of us afterwards.  I'll belong to any man who wants me, but I can only think of one man whom I want."

"Who's that?" Fima asked.  She thought all men were the same kind of nuisances, and was surprised to hear her mother talk about actually wanting one.

"It's Pexon.  He's hairless and smart, too, and a kind man, the only one around.  He and I used to play together as children, because we were so different from the others.  But, of course, he was too young to marry me when I was ready.  So I got Nuk, the bastard.  Pexon might want me, because his young wife just died.  She went alone to fetch water, the stupid thing, and the wolves took her and her baby."

"But some other man might come and take you for a second or third wife, and you'd be worse off than you are now," Fima reminded her mother.  "Still, that's all I have to look forward to, myself.  Rats!"

* * * * *

That afternoon, Seta got a feeling that Nuk would come back earlier than usual, and set about baking bread.  Thanks to her diligent efforts as a farmer, she always had a good store of barley, and Nuk had learned to appreciate the soft, tasty bread she baked.  Fima pounded the grain to flour and mixed it with herbs and water, and Seta got out some of the honey she kept for special occasions, and stirred it into  the dough.  As they sat watching the loaves baking on the thin, flat stone over the fire, Fima strayed onto a subject that, for once, didn't have to do with murder.

"What are the Sapiens people like, Mother?" she asked.  Fima knew there was another kind of people in the world, but she had never seen one of them.  She had been told that they lived far away, across the plain, near the big forest.  But she wanted to hear things from her mother before she was prepared to believe them.

"They are hairless and tall, I've heard," Seta answered.  "They can't run as fast as our men can, but in battle, they always outsmart us.  In earlier days, our tribe was much bigger, but so many of our men have been killed by the Sapiens lot that we're dwindling.

"Once they're said to have come all the way here to the caves, killing and raping.  The old people said it happened the year before I was born.  That would be two dozen and six years ago."

Fima could easily count to twelve, which was quite sufficient for her needs.  She knew that her own age was a dozen and two years, and she could understand what Seta meant with two dozen and six, but she didn't think she'd ever be able to comprehend what was meant by a gross, a dozen dozens.  Seta could count to a gross, and beyond, and knew that there were two dozen and five days from a new moon to the next, and that there were a dozen moons and a dozen days from one midwinter to the next.  Nobody had taught her that, because nobody was smart enough; she had figured it out all by herself.  And that was why the shaman was so suspicious of her: apart from Seta, no one in the tribe could rival him in knowledge.

But Fima wasn't all that dumb, either.  "So you were born the year after the raid when the Sapiens men came here to rape women, and you're tall, hairless, and smart.  I'd say you're half Sapiens yourself.  And that," she added, "means that they can't be all that bad, because you're such a good mother!"

Seta looked at her in disbelief.  "You're, right, girl!" she exclaimed.  "And, what's more, Pexon and the shaman are half Sapiens, too.  We were all born within seven days of each other, my mother said.  She always seemed to bear some terrible, shameful guilt about me, but she never said what it was.  And now I find out from my daughter!"

Deep in thought, Seta looked out over the wide plain in front of the row of caves.  Musk oxen and mammoths grazed at the snow-covered grass in full view--so temptingly close, and so totally beyond the power of man to catch or kill when in their big herds.  Perhaps it was just as well--at least the men had to be away for many days at a time to get a cave bear for meat, an animal that lived the life of a loner and was therefore vulnerable.  Images of warm summer days in the same spot came to her mind, and then she started and began to think hard.

"Remember last summer, when it was so dry that all the grass died?" she asked Fima.  Fima nodded, and Seta went on.

"There was this musk ox that was so hungry that he ate bracken fern when he could find no more grass, remember?  After seven days, he lay there dead, and when we went to cut up the meat, we couldn't use it because was all black and it stank.  Well, I kept some of the bracken and put it among my other herbs, thinking it might come in handy one day.  And now I believe it will."

"We'll give some of it to Nuk, right?"  Fima was so excited that she was jumping up and down.  "But how do we get him to eat it?"

"When he leaves on his next hunting trip, he'll be wanting some fresh bread to take along.  I'll pound the bracken in with the grain and sweeten the bread with honey, and he won't notice a thing.  He'll be gone to the temple while I bake, so he won't see me doing it.  That's what I'll do," Seta mused, and added, "I'll have to set my mind on getting Pexon to come here as soon as the hunting party returns, before anybody else thinks of me."

Fima was thoroughly happy with the plan, and proceeded to ask her usual flood of questions.  "What do the men do at the temple?" she inquired.  "Why is Nuk always so drowsy when he comes back at night?"

Seta, as a woman, wasn't allowed near the temple, nor was she supposed to know anything about it.  But she had her ways of asking subtle questions, and her powers of deduction did the rest.

"They bring the shaman the best pieces of meat, to feed him and his servants," she explained.  "In return, the shaman gives them beer to drink.  They can't figure out how he makes it, so they have to come to him for it.  To keep us in the dark about what they do, they say they're sacrificing to the gods.  But they can't cover up the smell nor the fact that they can't live without beer once they get used to it.

"Now I'll tell you a secret: I, too, know how to make beer.  I have some in my pantry; it'll come in handy one day.  Only I'm not telling Nuk  about it; he'd just drink it all and then go out bragging to the others about it."

"How did you learn to make it?" Fima marvelled.  "Is there anything you don't know?"

Seta laughed.  "I know that there are many things I don't know, which is more than most people know.  But making beer isn't such a mystery.  The shaman's servants come to the women in the fall and demand a part of the grain harvest to sacrifice to the gods on our behalf, right?  Well I know for a fact that they don't bake bread from it--Nuk has told me that, and the temple doesn't smell of bread.  But it smells strongly of malted barley, and every summer, the shaman's servants are out picking hops.  So I picked some too, made some malt, and cooked it all up in my big earthenware crock.  Then I left it in some flasks I had made from hollow logs, and it turned into beer.

"But now we're getting onto dangerous matters.  If the shaman ever finds out, he'll have me killed as a witch.  And you, too: he's seen that you take after me, and he isn't pleased.  Make sure you never talk about any of our secrets with anybody, not even with your brothers and sisters!"

"I wouldn't dream of it!" Fima assured her mother.  "I wouldn't even tell Bemro, as much as I love him.  Tell me, Mother, what will his initiation be like?  Will it turn him into a nasty brute like the other men?"

Seta became very serious.  "Again, you and I aren't supposed to know, and if anybody finds out that we do, we'll be killed.

"The initiation is meant to make men out of the boys.  So the shaman gets all the boys aged a dozen and three years up on the high plateau above the caves, and all the grown men, too.  He has his servants take a girl from the tribe, and they make out that it's a great honor for the girl.  But when all the men are drunk, they gang-rape the girl, and then all the boys have to do it, too.  The boys have to beat her up first; any boy who won't beat and rape the girl is killed there and then.  In the end, if the girl isn't dead already, she dies when the shaman cuts out her heart.  Then he grills and eats the heart and mates with the dead body.

"When night falls, the bodies of the girl and the boys who were killed are left for the wolves, and the others go to the temple to drink some more.  That day is the first time a boy gets to taste beer, and he'll keep up the habit from then on.  And the shaman stays in business."

"I thought that the Maidens of Honor were supposed to join the Temple to serve the gods for the rest of their lives," said Fima.

"That's what we're told, yes."  Her mother had a wild look of anger about her.  "If it were true, there'd be a dozen women living in the temple by now.  But they wouldn't have much time to serve any gods, because they'd be too busy attending to the men who go there all the time.  And all that attention would have resulted in a gross of children.  The temple is just a big cave with an ornamented entrance: we'd know if there were women and children in there.  And if the shaman really had women at his disposal, his servants wouldn't be doing women's work!"

Fima knew that none of the other women would have been smart enough to see through the sham.  Seta could add things up, just like she could predict the seasons and the times for planting and harvesting.  But how did she know about the initiation ceremony?

"I wanted to find out, so once, on the day of the initiation, I left you children with my sister and went up to the plateau before the men.  It wasn't hard to find, with all those bones lying about.  I found a hiding place and stayed there until the men left.  They aren't all that smart, you know."

"But what they do is awful," Fima shuddered.  "So it comes just natural to the men to treat their women so badly.  I wonder who the unlucky girl will be this spring?"

Seta knew that all her hopes for a different future were vested in Fima: none of her other children had as much of the hairless blood in them.  Now she gasped--Fima was of age, and the shaman made no secret of establishing a watertight monopoly on the insights he held.  Most likely, Fima would be his choice for a maiden for this year's initiation.  Fima would have to be protected, and there were only two ways of doing so: either Fima had to disappear, or she'd have to marry first.

There was precious little time: the spring equinox, the time when the initiation was always held, would take place within little more than ten days.  Seta would have to go to her calendar at the back of the cave to check.  But Fima couldn't just be sent off on her own.  If she were found, she'd be killed as a criminal; if not, the wolves would take her.

Just as for herself, there was only one man Seta would willingly give her eldest daughter to: Pexon.  She'd have to change her plan.  Somehow, she'd have to continue living with Nuk, and Pexon would have to be persuaded to marry Fima as soon as possible.  He was a diligent man with many possessions; for sure he'd have enough to make up a price that Nuk would accept.

Seta wasn't one to despair, but she had turned very grave.  "I just hope it won' be you," she said faintly.

* * * * *

The bread was still cooling off when Nuk came home.  It was late afternoon, and the sun was already shining into the cave.  Nuk dropped two bundles of bear meat on the floor and went to fill himself with bread.  Then he had a drink from the wooden bucket on the floor and grunted, "Nothing but water to drink in this place, ever!"

Then, in short order, he turned to Seta, grabbed her clean hair with his grimy, blood-stained hands, forced her down on all four, and mounted her from behind.  When he had finished, he gave her a kick that sent her sprawling among the ashes on the floor.  Visibly satisfied, he lumbered off to his place in the warmest corner of the cave for a nap, issuing a casual warning to Seta.

"Don't touch the bigger piece of meat: it's for the gods!"

Seta knew without being told that he expected a steak dinner when he woke up.  She inspected the smaller piece.  "Hardly enough for a meal for Nuk, and a few scraps for the rest of us.  Your drinking habit is costing us dearly, Nuk.  If I didn't feed you, you'd be starving."

She spoke to herself, and Nuk never heard what she said.  She went down to the creek to wash the meat, and there Fima found her mother when the coast seemed clear for her to come out of her hiding place.  Seta was holding the clean piece of meat, but instead of returning to the cave, she had gone to squat down in the middle of the pond.

"What are you doing there in the cold water?" Fima asked.  "You could get sick, like you're always warning us!"

"I'm cleaning myself out," Seta answered.  "What goes in, must come out, one way or the other.  This is the other way.  I don't want any more of his children.  I'm finished with him."  With a grimace she sat down once more; then she got up and out of the pond.  Together they climbed back to the cave and started preparing the food.

Nuk was snoring, and the two women knew they could talk safely.  Fima was close to tears.

"I just can't stand him any longer.  Why don't women make the law, Mother?  It just isn't right that he can treat you like that!"

Seta's confidence was completely restored, and she spoke grimly.  "We do make laws, my darling.  Our own laws.  Only we don't tell the men what they are.  The good ones learn, in time.  Idiots like Nuk don't live to find out."

* * * * *

At dinner, Nuk was in a better mood.  He ate with his family, took a vague interest in his children, and showed no signs of violence.  When he wanted to mate with Seta, he eased her into his lap and treated her almost gently.  Soon after, he got up and grabbed the piece of meat he had saved.

"Got to please the gods," he muttered, as he went off to the temple.

Seta felt a whole lot better about Nuk and was becoming hopeful that everything might yet work out.  But Fima shattered her illusions.

"Mother, why did Nuk look at me like that?"

"In what way, Fima?"  Seta had missed out on whatever it was.

"While he was mating with you, he was looking at me like he wanted to eat me or something.  I'm scared!"

It all came down on Seta like a landslide.  So Nuk wanted Fima for a second wife!  That was a fate she would not accept for her daughter.  Nuk would have to be killed, and soon.

"Fima, tonight you sleep behind the storage barrels at the side of the cave.  Tomorrow you go early to see your aunt Noka and remain there until the men have left again.  Stay in her cave and help her, and let nobody see you.  Nuk mustn't get hold of you, ever!"

Nuk came home late that night and went straight to sleep.  In the morning he was looking miserable, and he was in a combative mood.

"We'll be leaving today before noon," he said.  "Bake me some bread to take along!  I'm not going to go hungry until we get the bear like those other fools.  Not when I have a wife who still has barley in stock!"

Seta turned to go and fetch the grain, but Nuk stopped her short.

"Not so fast, bitch! Where do you think you're going?  Trying to get away from me, are you?"

Nuk drove home his words with a hard slap across Seta's face.  She knew how useless it would have been to argue with him, and bent down before him.  This time, he kicked her harder afterward, and her head hit the cave wall.  She passed out for a moment, and, coming to, she heard Nuk yelling at her as he kicked her some more.

"Don't just lie there, you lazy slut!  Go make me that bread!  You haven't got all day!"

"You'll get your bread alright," Seta said under her breath, as Nuk went off with axe in hand.  "It'll be the best bread you've ever tasted.  And it'll do you a world of good."

* * * * *

Nuk came back with a large new spear, and proceeded to harden its tip in the fire.  The bread was cooling off and smelled lovely.  But Nuk wasn't pleased.

"Where's Fima, the little bitch?" he demanded.

"I've sent her off on an errand," Seta replied.  "She'll be back before nightfall."

"You had no right to do that!"  In his rage, Nuk hit Seta across the mouth.  "I need her here, now!"

Seta didn't answer, and Nuk had to accept his disappointment.  He went back to finishing his spear, which was far too heavy for him.  He had grown fat and slow from too much beer and a liberal supply of bread.  Seta could see that he wouldn't be effective with his new weapon.

"We'll be going for the big one this time," Nuk said.  "He's clever, but this spear will get him.  Be ready for a big load of meat!"

"Good-bye, Nuk!" Seta whispered as he left.

* * * * *

The grandfather cave bear had struck Nuk's head off with one blow.  Two of the other men had been injured, but in the end Pexon and Ongart, the chief, had managed to drive their spears right through his chest.  In the evening the third day after the men had left their homes, the work of skinning the animal and cutting up its meat was done, and the men sat down for a well-deserved meal.

"Did you see how Nuk's head flew off like a rock out of a slingshot?" one of the men exclaimed.  Everyone roared with laughter, and another man took up the thread.

"Poor Nuk thought he was so clever lugging all that bread with him, so he wouldn't have to hunt on an empty stomach.  Never a morsel did he share.  But it sure made him lazy.  You hunt a lot better when you're hungry!"

"He was getting rather useless, anyway," Ongart observed.  "Far too keen about the beer, he was.  Today he seemed slow as a glacier."

The men knew well that their chief distrusted the shaman and his beer.  None was allowed on the hunting trips, where Ongart was in absolute control.  Back at the caves he was forced to share power with the shaman, and he didn't like it at all.  But now he proceeded to divide the spoils between the men.

"It's your turn to take the skin, Pexon.  And since you helped with the kill, you get one of the hind legs, and I get the other.  Someone will have to help you carry it all.  Pity that Nuk's wife and children get nothing.  But she's a good farmer: they won't starve."

"I have no one to share my leg of bear with," said Pexon.  "I might go and give some to Seta."

"You do that," Ongart encouraged him.  "You could do worse than take Seta for your wife, by the way.  You need a wife, and she has no husband now.  You two always got along so well."

 Pexon nodded and fell silent.  He didn't hear the merry joking around him as the men began envisaging his conquest of the proud, fair Seta.  Soon they gave it up--Pexon had always been out of their reach, in a manner of speaking.  Night fell; in the morning the journey home would begin.

* * * * *

"Seta, your husband is dead."  Pexon had been dreading those words, but he had to speak them: he had arrived at the cave Nuk and Seta had shared.

Seta cried; she accused the men, including Pexon, of killing Nuk; and wailed in despair over being left with no one to provide for her.  Eventually, Pexon managed to tell her the full story of how Nuk, too heavy, too slow, and too clumsy after his big morning meal, had gone ahead alone to attack the bear with his new, oversized spear.  Pexon didn't care to mention that Nuk had been in desperate need of a larger share of the meat; he owed the temple back payment for all the beer he had drunk lately, and only the man who made the actual kill had the right to a whole leg of the bear.

Seta was soon comforted, and together with Fima she proceeded to prepare a feast for them all.  Pexon gave her the bearskin, and Seta sent Bemro to pick a big heap of spruce twigs to lay under it to make a soft, comfortable bed.  While he was out and the meat was grilling, Seta cleared out Nuk's old lair in the warm back part of the cave, and soon the bed looked marvelously inviting, large enough for two, or even three; fresh-smelling and soft.

When they had eaten and talked for a long time, Pexon felt he couldn't impose on his hostess any longer and said he'd go to the temple and then home to his cave.  He, too, liked a horn of beer, but he couldn't tell Seta about it.  But Seta had other plans.  She made him once more comfortable by the fire and went to fetch a flask from her pantry.  To Pexon's utter amazement, she drew him a horn of foaming, beautiful beer, in every way superior to the crude brew of the shaman.  Although Pexon was no big drinker, he gladly accepted another draft, and then yet another.

"Won't you stay here with us, Pexon?" Seta asked when he would drink no more.  "We need someone to protect us.  Look at that beautiful bed--there's room enough for you here!"

And so it was that Pexon found himself embracing his old friend and being gently led to the comfort of the giant bearskin rug.  Seta laid on her back and pulled Pexon down over her.  Neither would have guessed that man and woman could meet in such a way, but the joy they shared was greater than anyone in the tribe had ever known.

* * * * *

Early the next morning the shaman and his six servants turned up in front of the cave.  Pexon and Seta went to meet them, and Fima peeked out behind her mother's back to see what was going on.

"So this is where I find you, Pexon!" the shaman scowled.  "You're quick to take advantage of another man's bad luck.  Today is the preparation day for the initiation, and you should have been at the temple before daybreak!"

Pexon had no fear of the sly, slightly built shaman.  He could take on him and all his servants single-handed, if he had to.  "I'm exempt.  I've taken a wife, and I have no other duties until a moon has passed.  This is well known to you, shaman; it's our law."

The wrath of the shaman showed all over him.  Seta had acquired a formidable protector; together they were a much greater threat to his schemes than either one alone.  Yet he could do nothing to separate them for a whole moon: even the shaman wasn't above the law.

But he could do something to hurt them.  "Get your daughter out in the open, Seta!" he yelled.  "I want to have a look at her."  Fima obeyed, and the shaman was visibly satisfied with what he saw.  "You'll do," he muttered, and left with his entourage.

Pexon decided to move in with Seta and went to his cave to fetch his things.  Bemro helped him with carrying them; in a short while, Pexon was installed.  He ordered his belongings with great care not to disturb Seta's household, and when he was done, he showed her an ax he had been working on for a long time.

It was a beautiful black ax, completely different from the crude, wedge-shaped tools the tribe had always used.  Pexon had got tired of tying the ax-head to the fork-shaped handle, only to have it fly off again at the worst possible moment.  So he had started playing around with the shoulder-bone of a sheep, drilling a hole through it, and fitting a straight handle in the hole.  When he had satisfied himself that he knew what he wanted to make, he had found a stone of suitable size and shape, and had started shaping it.  In the end, the ax ended up slender and smooth like a fish, and when Pexon had finished drilling the hole, he had spent many more days polishing it with wet sand until it shone like a pebble out of the creek.

"This is what I'll be taking on our hunting trips when I go back to work," Pexon told Seta.  "It's a wonderful ax.  You should see how it splits wood!"

Seta examined the ax.  "Have you shown it to anybody yet?"

Pexon hadn't.  "Well, don't," Seta warned him.  "Those brutes would gladly try to kill you over that ax, and they'd be no wiser for it: they'd have one ax to fight over and nobody would know how to make another.  There's a better use for it."

That evening, Seta prepared her eldest son for his initiation.  "You'll find that you'll be asked to do things you never dreamed of doing.  Don't hesitate; just do what's expected of you.  If you don't, you'll be killed.  Neither Pexon nor Nuk will be there to protect you--not that Nuk would have cared to do so, had he been around.  Just make sure you come back unharmed.  I don't want to lose you."

Seta knew that the shaman would do everything in his power to hurt her and her family.  Most likely Bemro would have to go first without the benefit of having seen some other sensitive boy be killed before his turn came.

Seta's other worry was just as pressing, however.  If she didn't act fast, tomorrow morning Fima would go off to her death, along with her brother who would never touch her even if it would cost him his own life.

The day was over, and once more Pexon lay down with the woman he had found himself loving with an intensity he hadn't known existed.  Neither had he known that a woman, too, could enjoy mating, and it made him happy beyond words to share such a pleasure with Seta.  Now they were resting on the large bed, and Seta called out to Fima, the only one of the children still awake.

"Come over here and give us a hug, darling! We're feeling so good, and we'd like to hold you for a moment!"

Fima knew always to obey her mother, no matter if she understood what was going on or not.  Soon she was lying between the two of them, snuggling and giggling with her mother who was teasing Pexon and involving him in the play with all her all her womanly charm.  As could be expected, he was soon ready to mate again.

It took little persuasion from Seta to make Pexon accept the idea that he could have Fima for his second wife there and then.  With a strange sense of reverence and tenderness, mixed with a firm desire, he mated with Fima, and afterward once more with Seta.  Then he lay down with one wife's head resting on each shoulder and was happy.

* * * * *

The day of the initiation dawned.  The shaman arrived with all his servants and all the grown men, followed by a trail of boys looking bewildered and expectant.  He stopped in front of the cave and addressed Pexon who stood facing him, tall and grim.

"Bring out Fima!  She's been favored above all the other girls in the tribe! She'll be the Maiden of Honor during this year's initiation."

"I'll do no such thing, shaman," answered Pexon.  Hushing the roar of angry protest from the men, he continued, "I've taken her to be my second wife.  Fima is no longer a maiden.  Go elsewhere!"

Ashen grey with rage and gritting his teeth, the shaman had to accept yet another defeat.  If his looks could have killed, Bemro would have dropped dead as he quietly joined the other boys at the end of the procession.  Eager to waste no more time, the shaman stopped at a cave nearby and enrolled a girl whom none of the boys could stand.  Seta sighed with relief: Bemro's plight would be somewhat eased.

When the crowd of celebrants was out of sight, Seta revealed her plan to Pexon.  "Today we'll walk across the plain and go visit the Sapiens people," she said.  Over his incredulous protests, she explained why.  "We don't belong here, Pexon.  We're half Sapiens ourselves.  You can see how the shaman hates us for being purer Sapiens than himself.  He may not have succeeded in getting Fima today and he may even fail to have Bemro killed, but he won't rest.  He'll turn them all against us.  We'll go and befriend our kin.  They'll let us stay with them."

And so it was settled.  Fima stayed with the children; as protection she had Garf, the young wolf that Bemro had brought home as a blind cub two summers ago.  Seta packed a number of things in a bundle and told Pexon to take along his new ax.  Then she gave him one of the beer flasks to carry, and after taking provisions for the day they set off toward the west.

Around noon they arrived at the edge of the great forest.  Following the tracks and their noses, they soon came upon a settlement.  The startled guards leapt to their feet and stared in bewilderment at the strange couple, so much like themselves and yet so different.

Before the guards could make up their minds to attack him, Pexon raised his empty hand in greeting and spoke.  "We have come as friends.  We would like to talk with your people peacefully.  Please take us to your chief!"

Obviously, the guards couldn't understand him.  But his voice was reassuring, and when he pointed toward the settlement and repeated in their own language, "Chief," they did as he asked.  Pexon had been in several battles with the Sapiens warriors, and he had memorized many of the words he had heard and understood.

When they arrived at the settlement, Pexon and Seta, for the first time, saw houses.  They were low and squat, built of pine logs that were held on top of each other between stakes planted firmly in the ground and tied together with the corresponding stake on the other side of the wall.  Small openings in the walls provided a modicum of daylight and ventilation; the roofs were covered with birch bark, except for a small hatch where the smoke from the fire inside was allowed to escape.

The guards took them to the largest of the houses and, opening the door, announced the visitors.  Inside, when their eyes had got used to the dim light, they saw an old man sitting on an ornamented wooden chair.  He had to be all of four dozen years old, with deep lines in his face, and silver grey hair and beard.  They were conducted to face the chief, and, following the example of the guards, they knelt before him in greeting.

The old chief spoke sternly to Pexon in the cave men's language.  He had taken many slaves during his raids and had learned to speak with them.  "Why have you come here?  Don't you know that we are enemies?"

"Enmity doesn't have to last forever, most honored Chief," answered Pexon.  "We have come as friends.  My wife Seta, my other wife Fima, and myself, Pexon, feel that we and our children should belong to your people and not to that of the cave men.  We are your kin, descendants of Sapiens warriors who came to the caves two dozen and six years ago."

A gleam of wonderment came into the eyes of the old chief, but he remained cold when he spoke.  "Why should we have you here?  How can you benefit us?  We have many good warriors and lots of healthy women and children.  We don't need you!"

Pexon handed him his new ax.  "I can teach your people how to make axes like this one.  Our son, Bemro, is a skilled woodworker.  Seta knows more secrets than anyone and can teach your women many things."

The chief and the men of his household were stunned by the looks of the ax.  They had never seen anything like it before.  As he handed Pexon back the ax, the chief said, "That's a valuable tool you have there.  We do a lot of woodcutting.  I'd like you to show us how you made it."

Seta decided that she could safely play ignorant of the customs of the strange people, and ventured to address the chief.

"Venerable Chief," she said, "the state of your feet doesn't do justice to your splendid position.  They're dirty and they make you cold.  Let me wash them for you!"

The chief called for water to be brought, and Seta took out some of her soap from her bundle.  Soon she had scrubbed the chief's feet and shins warm and clean, and was drying them on her tunic.  To the chief's questions regarding the soap, she replied with much diplomacy.

"If you let us live with you, venerable Chief, I'll teach your women how to make soap like this, and many other things.  Soap will make your people live longer and healthier lives.  None of my children has died, save my second son who was born in the middle of winter while I lived in my earlier cave, which was very cold.  He coughed himself to death before the full moon had returned."

By now, the other men present demanded translation and explanations.  When the chief had finished talking, his brother pointed at Pexon and exclaimed, "You went on that raid yourself many years ago, Chief, and here stands a young man who looks just like you!  I still remember your bragging about how you raped one of the cave women.  You've just met your son, my dear brother!"

Another man joined the discussion.  "If my memory doesn't fail me, Hunsolf, our wizard, took part in the same raid as a young warrior.  Tell me if I'm wrong, but this woman looks as if she could be his daughter!"

On public demand, someone went off to fetch Hunsolf.  He was much inclined to stay by himself, but he always gave his advice willingly when someone had a problem.  Now, confronted with the evidence, he admitted to having his share of the fun during the ancient raid.  Shaking his head, he asked the chief, "What do you intend to do with them?"

"You're the wizard; I'll have your advice before I speak," the chief replied.

Seta, meanwhile, had talked the chief's wives out of a lambskin, and with the aid of her flint knife and some leather straps she carried she had made the old chief a pair of boots to keep his feet warm.  She reverently put them on his feet and stood back to look around.  Her eyes met those of the wizard, and immediately she knew of their kinship.  Without a word, she knelt before him and kissed his hands.

The wizard, for once, lost his usual lofty airs.  Choking with emotion he said simply: "This is my daughter; I want her by me in my old age."

That settled the matter.  The chief needed no more persuasion; in his turn, he rose and embraced Pexon.  "You will live with us, my son," he said.  "When can you bring your family?"

"In two or three days," Pexon answered, "when the men have left on their next hunting trip.  We'll carry our things part of the distance, but you must send some young men to help us bring them all the way to your settlement.  We don't want to come here empty-handed."

And so it was agreed.  Now Pexon opened the flask of beer and offered the chief a toast from his horn, after first drinking some himself to show that it was harmless.  Having tasted the brew, the chief called for his own horn and had it filled to the brim.  The other men were served, as well, and everyone drank to the long life of the chief and to the health and happiness of the new arrivals.  And Seta's reputation as a worthy wizard's daughter grew with each compliment the beer received.

* * * * *

The following day, Bemro returned to the cave with a headache.  In spite of his pride over having been accepted as a grown man, he couldn't get over his disgust with what he had experienced during his initiation.  He knew he must never tell his mother or sister what had happened, but somehow they seemed to know just how he felt.  Bemro sat with his head in his hands and looked rather hopeless.

"From now on, I'm to spend the rest of my life with that bunch of brutes, hunting and drinking.  I don't know.  Risking my life for a few scraps of meat?  What about making things from wood?"

"I have good news for you, Bemro," Pexon replied.  "We'll be leaving this place.  As soon as the men have gone off to hunt, we'll take our belongings and go join the Sapiens settlement across the plain.  There you'll be able to make a living as a carpenter!"

When Bemro had heard the tale of their trip, he said, "That's all very well for you.  But I'll have to go along on the hunt.  If I refuse, the punishment will be swift, harsh, and final!"

But Pexon assured him that something could be arranged.  While the others were packing their things in bundles, Pexon went to see the chief, Ongart, and gave him a slightly modified account of his excursion the day before.

"Ongart, yesterday Seta and I went out on the plain to look for a suitable place to plant barley when the earth is warm again.  There we discovered a band of Sapiens warriors heading toward the caves.  When they saw us they turned back and disappeared.  But you never know if they'll come again.  I think it would be a good idea if Bemro stayed here with me when you go off hunting the next time.  Just in case there's a raid."

Ongart readily agreed.  He knew Pexon was as good as half a dozen of the other men, and with his son, he'd be able to do a lot to protect the women and children the men had to leave behind.  Pexon returned to the cave, and they soon finished their preparations.

The weather stayed good, and the next morning the men left as usual.  When they were long enough gone that nobody would think of running to get them back, Pexon and his family started carrying their things out across the plain.  The temple smelled of fresh beer and the shaman's servants would be busy brewing for the remainder of the day.

An hour's walk from the cave they made a store and returned for more.  By the end of the day, everything they were taking was safely out on the plain, and having said their farewells to their incredulous relatives they took the small children along and went to make a camp for the night.

They had no barriers to protect them, but enough wood to keep a fire burning all night.  Pexon and Bemro, assisted by Garf, took turns at the watch and all went well: the wolves didn't come that way.  During the morning they kept the fire going for as long as their supply of wood lasted, and before noon, a dozen young men from the settlement responded to their signal and turned up to help them with their things.

The carriers were quite shocked to see a tame wolf, but Garf was good-natured and playful, and they soon realized what an asset he was.  Every time Bemro showed them a trick he had taught Garf he rose in their esteem, and before they arrived at their destination he knew he had a place among his new peers.

The chief assigned Pexon, Seta, and Fima an attractive piece of land, with a creek running through it, near his own house and an ample share of the fields to farm.  Before nightfall, Pexon and Bemro had erected a shelter of spruce branches, with a fire burning between two logs across its front.  Nobody minded the inevitable crowding: they were too excited about their new life.

* * * * *

As spring wore on, they divided their time between working the fields and building a house.  No longer did Seta and Fima have to break the ground alone: Pexon and Bemro did most of the work for them, and the barley field was many times larger than any earlier one Seta had made.  In addition, they were able to plant patches of several of the herbs they were used to gathering around the caves.

Pexon and Bemro spent a long time looking at houses to see how they were built.  With the tools they had, they then set about clearing the floor for their own cabin.  The new ax was a splendid labor-saving device, making the work much faster than they had expected.  Pexon only wished he'd had the time to make another one for Bemro.

They had laid two layers of logs around the perimeter of the cabin when one day Bemro was cutting away knots and bumps on the underside of one of the next logs with the new ax.  Trying to make a good fit, he ended up with a rounded groove along the length of the log.  As they were fitting the log in its place, Pexon noticed that it stayed put without needing the support of the stakes at all.

"You know, Bemro, maybe we should cut a groove like that in all the logs.  Not only will they balance nicely, there'll be no draft through the cracks!"

Said and done.  A day later they were back where they had started, with three layers of logs.  But the stakes were still needed: it was evident that the logs couldn't be left to balance on their own.

Somewhat later, Bemro found that he had cut two logs too long: they were crossing each other where two walls met as he was trying to put them in place.  Instead of trimming them to their usual length, he made notches in them so they locked into each other at the corner.  When he had a good fit, he found that they held each other in place.

As Bemro was pondering the significance of this, Pexon came to take a look.  He tried to move the logs and found that they formed a rigid structure.  In a moment he had made up his mind.

"Bemro, we're going to start over again!  We'll make all the corners like this, and not only will the house stand up without stakes, the corners will be tight and windproof!"

So, a little later they stood there with no walls.  It was raining and the ground that was to become the floor of the cabin was wet and muddy.

"What a shame to lay good logs directly on the ground." said Bemro.  "In a year from now, the bottom layer will be rotten!"

"What would you do to prevent that?" asked Pexon.

"We could lay the logs on top of a layer of stones--that would keep them dry," answered Bemro.

And so they spent the next few days collecting and arranging stones for a foundation.  By then, Pexon had decided to make the cabin more than twice its original size.  Near one end, he laid a huge fireplace of stones, and on three sides of it he laid the foundations for inner walls to make two separate rooms.

"My two wives deserve a room each to themselves," Pexon said.  The fireplace will keep all the rooms warm."

When they had laid the bottom layer of logs on top of the stones, Seta came to inspect the building site.  She could see the reason for the slow progress and said nothing about the fact that summer was already well advanced, while the house was hardly begun.

"Wouldn't it be nice to walk on a timber floor instead of on a dirt floor?" she asked.  "There are so many trees here that you could spare some for a floor, couldn't you?"

Pexon swept her off her feet and kissed her.  "You've just solved my greatest problem: how to get over the foundation and the bottom log layer as you enter the house and go from room to room.  We'll lay a floor right now!"

So the house got a floor made of split and planed logs.  In the winter it would eliminate the draft blowing between the foundation stones.  But progress was painfully slow: already fall was approaching, and only four layers of logs were in place.

Meanwhile, Pexon's time had been taken up by many distractions.  He had conducted classes in ax-making for the men of the settlement.  Much work had been needed in the fields.  But as the men had finished their axes, one by one they had come along to give a hand with the house.  Soon a fifth layer of logs was in place, and then a sixth one.

Seta came again to look at the house.  Thoughtfully, she said, "Now that I've got used to living in an open shelter under the sky, I dread having to move into a house as dark as those here in the settlement.  Couldn't you leave me some bigger holes in the walls, so the sun could shine in?"

To Pexon's protests that all the heat would escape, Seta replied that she could cover the holes with the hides of young goats, which could be scraped and treated until they were quite translucent.  And so she got her windows and the building of the house kept progressing.

By the time the roof had been laid, the barley had been harvested.  As the children were playing under the sheaves of barley to stay out of the rain, Seta observed to Pexon that a thick enough layer of straw looked like a good roofing material.  So when the threshing was over with, instead of burning the straw they didn't need for bedding, Pexon thatched the roof of the house with it.  For many winters to come their house stayed warm under all that straw, and the rain never blew in between the birch bark shingles like in the older houses.

While the building was progressing, Seta had her own problems to solve.  Having lost her bathing pond, she was no less determined to keep her household clean.  So if she couldn't just roll hot stones into water, she'd carry water to hot stones.  She built a fireplace in the open and had Bemro make her a large, low water bucket.  When her pile of stones was hot, she'd lift some of them into the bucket, and the bath would be ready.

In the fall, as Pexon and Bemro were finishing the house, several of the men in the settlement had new, efficient axes and were eager to use them to try out the new building techniques Pexon and Bemro had developed.  So Seta persuaded some of them to build her a small house around the outdoor fireplace, with a flagstone floor and a smoke hatch in the roof.  That way her family could take their baths out of the wind and the rains, and she could do her laundry in a sheltered place.  Other men built her several storehouses, and one built an outhouse according to local custom.

One day Seta had left her small children playing in the bath while she went to see about her cooking.  The fire was out but the stones were still hot; Seta had warned the little ones not to touch them.  But when she returned, she found that they had been splashing and pouring water onto the hot stones, and the bath house was full of hot steam.

Seta got quite scared and wanted the little ones out of there right away.  But they were bubbling with delight and assured her that they had taken no harm.  In the end, Seta stayed with them and washed both them and herself, and found that they all were cleaner and felt better than ever before.

Seta had come upon yet another invention, and as she liked giving names to all the new things she discovered, eventually she started calling her bath house the Sauna.  By then it was already an institution in the village, the place where the women came to do their washing and the men came to take their long steam baths and discuss weighty matters.

When winter finally came, Pexon and his family were well installed in their big, bright, warm house.  Their storehouses were full and people came and went: they had become important members of their community.  Increasingly, they found themselves using the language of their new neighbors: so much more could be expressed in that tongue than in their own.

One day just before midwinter, the old chief came to visit them together with his wives, his relatives, and Hunsolf, the wizard.  Pexon and Bemro took the men to the sauna, and afterward Seta and Fima, although both heavy with child, fed everyone a sumptuous meal with plenty of beer.  After dinner, the chief thanked his hosts for their hospitality and indicated that his brother Rudrik had something important to say.

"My brother, the chief, isn't getting any younger," said Rudrik, prompting everyone to drink yet another toast to the long life of the aged patriarch.  "In spite of his marvelous vigor, he knows that this winter or the next may well be his last one.  So he has asked me to find out whom our people want for their next chief.

"I have gone around the settlement for three days now and have discussed the matter with all the heads of households.  This is the last household I enter on this business, and here I can only announce the unanimous decision of the others.  We would like you, Pexon, to be our chief when my brother dies."

 When the clamor of his guests had died down, Pexon stood up and spoke.

"I am honored and deeply moved by your confidence.  Out of gratitude to all of you for allowing us this new start in life I gladly accept, and I will do everything in my power to further the well-being of our people.  No one will find me dishonoring the legacy of my father!"

After several more toasts, Hunsolf, the wizard, got to his feet and bade silence.  But he wouldn't speak until Seta was seated with the rest of them.

"I'd like to remind you that I'm just as old as our chief, and I have my aches and pains, too, especially in the winter.  One day soon, I will be no longer.  But I'm no chief, and, hence, I don't have to ask anyone who should succeed me.  That's a decision only I can make, since only I can tell who's wise enough.

"Now I will exercise that right.  I name Seta to be my successor as your wizard."

Hunsolf knew well that his decision was the only correct one.  Ever since she had arrived at the village, Seta had spent every free moment with her father, eagerly absorbing his knowledge and sharing her own, while doing everything possible to make him comfortable in his old, chilly cottage.  Hunsolf knew that his daughter not only matched, but surpassed him in wisdom.

Now Seta blushed as she heard all the people present cheer Hunsolf's announcement.  They only needed to look about them to see what Seta could do for them: her house was a palace compared with the dwellings they were used to.  Seta said a few modest words in thanks and hurried off to get the dessert.  When it had been eaten and Seta had received her well-deserved praise, she asked Hunsolf to accompany her outside.  Almost everyone else came along, curious about what was going on.

Seta took her father across the yard and opened the door of a cabin she had had some men build for her.  Bemro had made many pieces of furniture, and now it was ready, warm and snug, with a fire roaring in the fireplace.

"I had this cabin built for you, Father," she said.  "Would you like to live here with us from now on?"

Naturally, Hunsolf accepted.  Before the end of the day his things had been brought over, and he was comfortably installed.  With no further worries about warmth and food, he spent the rest of his days discovering more secrets about the universe together with his daughter and his grandchildren.

The next house they built was for Bemro.  Had he stayed with the cave people, he'd have had to work for a few scraps of meat for the next ten years with no life of his own and no way of forming a family.  Then, if he were among those who survived those years of having to do the most dangerous tasks, he'd have been able to take a young girl for a wife, and, if he were lucky, get an empty cave to live in.

But Bemro was no longer a cave man.  In his new village he was an accomplished carpenter.  He had a good income from his work and he had found a girl, his own age, whom he had fallen in love with.  He was given a plot of land of his own and a share in the fields, and a dozen men turned up to help him build his house.  When it was finished and Bemro had made all the furniture for it, his betrothed brought all the things she had been making with her mother and sisters, and turned the house into a home.  Then there was a big celebration and Bemro's grandfather, the old chief, pronounced them man and wife.  And Seta had herself a good cry.

* * * * *

Five winters had passed since Seta had brought her family to the settlement.  The old chief and her father, the wizard, had both died, and Seta was now at the same time both wizard and the chief's first wife.  Bemro had three children, and Seta's own youngest child was fast growing up alongside Fima's eldest, his half-sister.  Pexon was content to have just two wives, even though he was chief: he loved both of them dearly and needed no further diversions.  Seta's second eldest daughter had also married and had a newborn baby.

As happy as Seta was to see her own family grow and prosper, she felt like a mother to the entire community, and she spent most of her time helping improve the lives of its people.  She taught them better ways of growing barley, good uses for many herbs they had never paid attention to, and all about the importance of organization, warmth, and cleanliness.  She made the hunters bring home all young kids and lambs that were orphaned when they took goats and sheep, and taught their wives to raise them in fenced paddocks for milk, wool, and meat.  Seta's fascination with hot water soon led her to discover how to turn wool into felt, and, in time, she created a whole new dress fashion to complement the animal hides people had worn until then.

Then one day the lookouts sent a man running to the village with word that the cave men were approaching, fully armed.  Pexon summoned all the men and went out to meet them.  He confronted their host in the open field and demanded to know what they wanted.  He could see that they looked hungry and ragged.  Ongart, the old chief, wasn't with them.

Instead, they were being led by the shaman who had been pleased to assume full command after Ongart had been killed by a bear.  But the shaman knew nothing about hunting and less yet about effective leadership, and soon the famine had been a fact.  Still, the shaman hadn't been willing to share his hoard of grain: he knew that it was the only thing that still kept him in control.

So, in order to shift the blame and divert the anger of the discontented hunters, the shaman had reminded them that Pexon, who rightly should have been there to take over as chief, had defected to the Sapiens enemy, and had told them that if they'd only go out and avenge themselves on Pexon and his two wives, they'd be able to live comfortably on their loot for ever after.  And now he stood there hurtling insults at Pexon, goading his men to attack.

In a wild tumult, the cave men did so.  Pexon's response was cool and orderly, and soon he had the enemy host divided into several smaller pockets that his men were fast destroying.  Seeing his army all but defeated, the shaman, with a wicked hate burning in his eyes, sneaked past the defenders and slunk into the forest.  Soon he had found his way to the settlement that was, for the moment, undefended.

Skillfully avoiding being seen, the shaman quietly found the largest house, which he knew must belong to the leader of the Sapiens host, and crept up to the door.  Raising his ax, he threw it open and found Seta and Fima inside with their children.  With a raging scream he leapt toward them.  But they ran off in opposite directions, and while the shaman was deciding which one to pursue first, Seta got hold of a crock of boiling water from the fireplace.

Fima grabbed a spear from a corner and advanced on the shaman.  While the children sought refuge under tables and in corners, the shaman made his fatal mistake: he didn't take the threat seriously.  He turned his back on Fima and leapt right into the stream of boiling hot water Seta was throwing at him.  With a howl of pain he turned to retreat, and within a moment, Fima had pierced his heart with the flint-tipped spear.

"Better your heart than mine, shaman," Fima whispered as she fell into the arms of her mother.

* * * * *

Most of the cave men had been killed and the rest threw down their arms, begging for mercy.  Pexon decided to spare their lives and take them for slaves.  He ordered his men to round up the survivors.  Inspecting them and the fallen, he noticed that the shaman had disappeared.  First he thought that his enemy had fled back toward the caves, but he saw no one in that direction.  Then he realized that the shaman had nothing to fetch there: with all the men gone he held no more power.  Full of evil forebodings Pexon left the command to his lieutenant and set out running toward his home.

His worst fears were confirmed as he arrived to see the front door wide open.  Crying, "Seta!  Fima!" he stormed into the house.  Inside the door he stopped short.  Seta and Fima were there, unharmed, scrubbing the floor.  Pexon thought that he must have gone mad, but then he saw that what they were trying to remove was blood.

"Blood has to be cleaned up right away..." Seta began, and then she and Fima found themselves in Pexon's arms, sobbing with relief.  They showed him the shaman's body that they had dragged out the back door.  The spear was still in his chest: they hadn't been able to dislodge it.  His face looked like that of a monster, distorted by rage and pain, and blistered from the heat of the water.

"So he came to finish the job," Pexon said quietly.  "But he sure didn't know what he was up against.  A good woman is stronger than a bad man.  Against two good women he never had a chance."

Tekstisisältöä pääset muokkaamaan tuplaklikkaamalla tekstialuetta. Tekstieditorilla voit lisätä ja muokata linkkejä, lihavoida, kursivoida ja alleviivata tekstiä sekä luoda listauselementtejä ja numerolistauksia. Asetuksista voit asemoida tekstin oikealle, vasemmalle tai keskitetyksi sekä jakaa tekstikappaleen useampaan eri komponenttiin.

I am set in my ways. I have a Master of Science degree in electronics and electrical engineering. I adore my children. I am married to a wonderful woman, who keeps me on the strait and narrow.

BOOTS AND BATHROBES was written after I tripped on a pile of boots in the hallway and a bathrobe came off the hook and I shouted out, "boots and bathrobes" and in reply came a small voice, so write a story about it.

You bet they do.  This is the tale of a missed opportunity--a sharper mind would have seen it, collected the stats, and become famous.  As it is, you'll have to take my word for it.

Tummeli never seemed to like commercial dog food very much, and after we changed her diet to homemade food, she really thrived.  She had fantastic table manners: when living alone with Tummeli, her mistress used to serve Tummeli at the kitchen table, where the two of them sat across from each other by candle light.

This story merges a vivid dream about a talking dog looking like our super-smart hound Jack and the memory of my childhood walks throught the forest to fetch the milk with my cat.


This is a story built on hearsay; it has some basis in real events and the rest is an attempt at imagining someone else's life situation.  But all's well that ends well, right?


This is a story about a bully that went too far.  He ended up going really far away while his rival got all the treats.  How about that?


Some machines have artificial intelligence.  Modern washing machines have been equipped with perverse intelligence to make it seem that they're saving water.  How can you save water when the clothes don't get clean and you have to wash them again?  But there's a way to wash normally, the way it used to be.


That's Tummeli spilling the beans again.  She can make even a dog walk sound interesting.  Keep up the good work, Tummeli!


No Paradise

The world is growing steadily worse. Now that's a pessimistic thing to say, isn't it? To be sure, a lot of things are getting better as the years go by. But somehow, we aren't building the paradise that our technology should permit. One day, the superpowers agree to scrap some of their nuclear missiles. The next, we learn that enough plutonium has found its way to the black market to enable international terrorists to build their own atomic bombs.

Misery, Crime, and Drugs

Where growing prosperity should be making people happy and content, selfishness and greed spread misery instead. Crime becomes more common and more violent every year. And something is driving more and more people into drugs.

Legal and Illegal Drugs

Alcohol, tobacco, and coffee are addictive drugs that eventually either break you down mentally or lead to invalidity or death from diseases of heart, lungs, and other internal organs. So are cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. But the former are legal, the latter are not.

Prohibition Causes Crime

Society's ideas of what's acceptable change with time. Alcohol, tobacco, and coffee have all been outlawed in different European countries at various times. The United States had its Prohibition that led to a sharp rise in organized crime and, incidentally, in the consumption of alcohol, as well.

Impotent Democracy

You'd almost think that the well-meaning legislators were, in fact, acting on behalf of the crime syndicates. To be sure, they weren't, but they allowed themselves to be manipulated by short-sightedness and hypocrisy. They thought they could mend an ill in society by stamping out the symptom, but without curing the disease.

Drugs Are Big Business

Today, most of the foreign currency earnings of Colombia come from the export of cocaine. The Mafia is reluctantly handing over its old role of local government in Sicily to the legal authorities in order to concentrate on international drug smuggling. The Golden Triangle in Indochina is ruled not by the respective governments, but by the wealthy drug lords that control the growing of opium and the sale of heroin. Many other illegal drugs flood the markets in the West. The trade in them is highly profitable because they are outlawed and, hence, hard to get.

One day, perhaps, the present illegal drugs will be legalized in most countries. Then crime syndicates and law enforcers will have to turn to something else. But such changes don't happen overnight. For the moment, the production, smuggling, and sale of illegal drugs are safe ways of making big money. Only the little guys ever get caught.

Drug Money Finances Terrorism

There's ample evidence to show that much of the money earned on drugs is used to finance terrorism against the same countries that paid it out in the first place. And in spite of heroic efforts by police and bank regulating authorities, the laundering of criminally earned money is still a matter of routine.

Why Terrorism?

Terrorism doesn't just happen because there are dissatisfied people somewhere. Organised terrorism is a tool of international politics. Terrorists need arms, equipment, explosives, training, and safe havens. They need false identities, forged passports, and undercover communications. And, most of all, they need money. Members of an underprivileged group somewhere can have all this from the secret services of countries such as Libya and Iran that, at this point in time, happen to be set on destabilizing the world. Or they can have it from the CIA if they are fighting the right enemy.

All over the world, bankers are building a payment system that will one day be used as a tool of a total, worldwide dictatorship.  Most people will welcome the dictator and accept his rule without reservations.  In fact, he is going to be considered something of a god.

The payment system will replace cash as legal tender and make checks superfluous.  It will be all electronic.  It will be mandatory for everyone.  Refusal to take part will, in principle, be punishable as treason, i.e., by death, or lead to death by starvation because you can't pay.

A myriad of trends, fashions, and marketing campaigns are now combining forces to make us all so dependent on society, consumption, and money that we'll have no choice but to go along with the dictator and his payment system.  As with earlier dictatorships, there'll be no middle ground: if you give in at all, you'll have to side with the official line fully and publicly.

The most important thing to know about this is that it's in the immediate future. I should know, I helped create this monster.

Can Cash Be Outlawed?

Many people, quite correctly, are worried about this rapid advance of new payment methods. A report published in Britain in 1988 called for legislation to protect the right of consumers to pay with cash, referring to anxiety that people may be denied this right. Such legislation may be enacted, but it would serve mainly to induce a false sense of security. Few things are as easy to change as laws, if you can first swing public opinion around through the use of sensationalist propaganda.

For most bankers, however, such questions are still irrelevant. Western banks are not planning a mandatory electronic payment system. Use of the electronic payment system and its payment medium, the plastic card, is seen as a privilege given to those who are willing and able to handle and keep track of a plastic card and a secret Personal Identification Number, or a PIN for short.

The majority of bankers and retailers, so far, have failed to perceive the existence of a risk that some outside authority might one day turn around and dictate that eftpos, once it is fully established, be made a mandatory payment system. So they keep on building it, until one day it will stand ready for the dictator to take it over. Then will arise the question of how you force someone to use it. As we'll see, the technicians have all the answers, only they don't know it.

Cashless Payments Coming

The natural solution in this age of cheap electronics is to use computer communications to initiate an automatic transfer of the purchase price from the buyer's bank account to that of the seller. The customer's account number is read from the magnetic stripe on his or her plastic card, his or her right to use the card is established by checking the secret PIN code keyed in, and the amount of purchase as well as information about the seller is supplied by the electronic cash register.

This is the concept of Electronic Funds Transfer at the Point Of Sale, eftpos for short. The hope is that eftpos will, in time, replace enough cash, check, and credit card payments with inexpensive electronic transactions to have an effect on the rising service distribution costs of the banks.

Progress is being made. The Electronic Funds Transfer Association estimated that in 1987, 48 million eftpos payments were made in the U.S. With the spread of debit cards and eftpos terminals, the growth in transaction numbers remains substantial. In July 1988, The Financial Times estimated that Britain would have 30,000 eftpos terminals by the end of 1988 and 300,000 in 1995.

Too Much Paper

Credit cards have proliferated in recent years and are replacing a certain proportion of cash and check payments. In many Western countries, check volumes are still growing, however. And the system for capturing credit card payment information was antiquated soon after it was introduced: a paper slip is imprinted and then takes much the same route as a check, at much the same cost.

In short, banks in most industrialized countries have their hands full with payment transactions that their traditional methods were never meant to cope with in the present numbers. They urgently have to find a way of automating the everyday payments generated by the increasingly affluent public. That way the banks hope to be able to devote more time to handling the profitable investment business generated by all these wealthy customers.

Cash Is Costly

Banks realized that they were in the service business, that there was competition for their customers, and that they had taken on the handling of payments, by check and other means, too lightheartedly. It's one thing to process checks for business clients, and another altogether to handle the immense volume of payments generated by private individuals grown prosperous.

Even the handling of cash became a problem. Nobody thinks of cash as being costly to use: change is usually always given to the penny, and if you take it to the bank, you normally don't pay any fees for your deposit. However, cash handling is a labor-intensive process that costs both the banks and the retail trade large sums in staff time.

It's quite normal for a bank to charge retailers a fee for accepting a cash deposit. Every day, the cash makes a trip from the banks through the consumers' wallets to the retailers, and then back again, sometimes by armored car, into the night safes of the banks. In the morning, bank staff have to count and sort the cash, remove worn-out notes for returning to the Treasury, and then load it into their cash boxes, their safes, and their Automatic Teller Machines.

The use of cash is not at all for free. It's heavily subsidized by the Treasury, and the nation pays the cost as taxes and in the prices of goods.

Banks Caught With Their Pants Down

What is it then that our Western bankers are building and for whom? To be sure, they have something entirely different in mind.

Banks in the industrialized world entered the 1970s with products and services inherited from past centuries. The task of a bank had always been to accept deposits, grant loans, and live off the interest margin. One banker once mentioned the time-honored 3-1-3 rule: lend at 3 per cent, borrow at 1, and go home by 3. Few people ever dealt with banks and those who did, came to the bank because there was nowhere else to go. Those who wanted to borrow came with their caps in their hands.

Suddenly, after literally hundreds of years of doing things in much the same way, the decades after the second world war saw prosperity spreading to ever wider layers of society. By 1970, it was clear that simply automating the old functions wasn't enough anymore. Entirely new methods had to be devised.

KGB Wants Perfection

Back in 1971, the United States Government asked a committee of intelligence and data processing specialists to imagine that they had been given a task by the KGB, the Soviet Secret Police. This, supposedly, was to put them in a better frame of mind for the purpose of the exercise: to come up with a system for efficient and unobtrusive surveillance of all Soviet citizens in all situations of life.

It so happens that, on separate occasions, I later met two members of this committee. Both men, upon hearing about my interest in the connection between payment systems and political oppression, volunteered to tell me about the result of the study. Not that it's a secret; it has been printed, in a slightly disguised form, in a report to the Australian Prime Minister in 1986.

The state of computer technology at the time made it quite easy for the group to come up with the answer. It recommended the introduction of a mandatory electronic payment system. The logic is simple: in modern society, just about every adult has to make payments all the time. The occasional subsistence farmer who may still go for long periods without having to buy anything, is too busy to cause those in power any trouble. Whenever a payment is made, the system knows where each person is, what he or she is paying for and how much, and who is being paid.

Apply a little statistical analysis to this information, and you'll know how much he or she is driving, who tends to be in the same locations at the same times, what everyone is reading, and for how many people food is being bought. This is all useful information if you want to keep track of what people are doing.

Last Gasp of the KGB

The two American gentlemen I met were visibly shaken by the result they had arrived at. Whether the U.S. Government ever turned over the results to the supposed client, the KGB, I don't know. In any case, the KGB will have had no trouble figuring it out for itself. Such a system certainly is the dream of any authoritarian government.

The old Soviet state, however, lacked the ability to motivate people to build the sophisticated systems necessary for efficient electronic surveillance. With a purely cash-based consumer economy, people in Communist countries have, in fact, so far enjoyed a measure of anonymity that Westerners are rapidly giving up in return for the convenience of cashless payments.

Ironically, it's the recent emphasis on freedom and rising living standards that will enable Soviet authorities to finally act on the reluctant American advice of two decades ago. With a lot of Western help, the Soviet consumer bank, Sperbank, plans to convert the whole country to plastic card payments within 10 to 15 years. The objective of the program, aptly named "Plastnost", is to take cash out of circulation altogether.

No Anonymity Left

However, the one outstanding form of constraint made possible by a mandatory electronic payment system would remain: the ability to control who buys and who sells. The key word is non-hadn't signed up for the system and accepted the prescribed payment medium, couldn't possibly use it at all.

How to Sell a Tool of Tyranny

But there's more. If the electronic payment system were the only legal tender, no anonymous means of settlement would remain. That would spell the end of theft, moonlighting, drug sales, extortion, fraud, you name it. Only legal payments would be possible. Modern computer systems, at least theoretically, have the processing power to keep tabs on every payment, and to report serious or recurring deviations from the norm.

This potential to enforce legal and ethical behavior would be the main sales argument of such a system. It would be the ultimate promise of control over a population without values. And it could control everyone, so that no political elite would be exempt. This is essential to public acceptance of such a system, because people are quite fed up with political privileges and extremely distrustful of politicians.

But what is honesty worth if it's forced on you? Nothing. Doing the right thing means something only if it's a choice. Trying to stamp out crime by taking away everybody's freedom means replacing an evil with an even greater one. And that's how we would have to understand such a proposition: as an excuse for imposing a tool of dictatorship.

Once the system had been accepted, the finer shades of the promised surveillance certainly would have to be scrapped. People are too mobile to be actually kept track of. Large computer projects tend to be cut down when the effort involved in implementing the more sophisticated functions becomes clear to the technicians.

We'll all be judged

"None of those Bible passages says, 'act thus and thus, and you'll go to Heaven.'  They say things like, 'you belong to God: here's how you can show that you're worthy of him.'  Or, 'you are God's people: set yourselves apart from the heathens.'  It's taken centuries of effort by the best brains of the church to explain how these clear statements can come to mean their exact opposite, i.e., the essence of the business model I just mentioned.  The resulting brainwash is so powerful that we automatically read such Bible passages backward like you just did."

"What about the rich guy who couldn't go through the needle's eye, then?" I asked.  "He was  told to give all he had to the poor, and that would get him to heaven."

"You got me there," smiled Adrian.  "Let's say that he's the exception that confirms the rule.  The story of the rich young man serves to show us how little legalism can achieve.  He was a righteous Jew and had observed the Law all his life.  Yet  he failed the test that Jesus gave him.  What this proved was that he couldn't or wouldn't follow the second part of the Greatest Commandment, to love his neighbor as himself.  He was too enamored of his wealth to let go of it, and that doomed him."

"But wait a little!"  I interjected.  "What's all the talk about books being opened on Judgment Day?  Eventually, we'll all be judged on our deeds, won't we?"




In place of a picture,
I'll give you a poem -
while writing a lecture,
my thoughts only roam

to you, my true darling,
my girlfriend of late;
my luck must be turning -
at last, we've a date!

A poem every five years
is not much, of course
to make up for your tears
and that hard work of yours.

But I love you truly,
you're perfect for me.
Our life, though unruly,
is the best there could be.


Oct. 31, 1975

Y2K - Before And After

During the late nineties, I was involved with preparing for the transition to the 21st century, when many computer programs, unless fixed or replaced, would have ceased to function because they were incapable of handling four-digit years.  The press made a big fuss about this and many doomsayers predicted the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI) on January 1, 2000.  I occasionally wrote on the matter, and we just found these two contributions to discussion forums concerning Y2K.

February 26, 1999
Re: An Informed Public Is a Prepared Public

Most Y2K observers, especially the doom mongers, are outside the corrective work going on.  Those doing the work, on the other hand, are too busy and have their noses too close to the ground to be able to put their perspective into sellable words.  Thus, the outside commentators have been left to define what's happening, and have chosen what's sure to help them sell their wares: the concept that we're all helpless victims of a large machine that's about to break down.

This is the current understanding of the role of society at large and of government in particular: For the People.  Some generations back, in countries so favored, government and public actions were seen differently: By the People.  Following the victory of business over the family and the individual, we now fulfill our ordained roles as specialized consumers with no complementary skills, and must depend on society, and, specifically, on business for every aspect of our survival.  Hence the ease of conjuring up the image of everybody on Earth stuck in a malfunctioning space station, abandoned by the maintenance crew, and headed for disaster.

What remains, however, is the fact that it's still people doing the work and the machines that may break down are their tools.  It isn't just some unknown processes that are at risk, it's places of work.  Billions of people are potentially affected; that means billions of pairs of hands that can do something.  We all deal with emergencies and broken tools all the time; are we likely to stand idly by while our jobs and our livelihoods go down the drain due to some technical problem with our tools?  I dodn't think so.  Common sense is a powerful force, once it kicks in.

All the people who wrench their living directly from the soil and the sea will be affected only indirectly, if at all.  Much of the work at risk can be performed with degraded tools or by alternative means.  Work that can't be done without the tools will be prioritized.

On another note, I believe that, in the developing countries, where there isn't enough time, money, or resources to check and fix everything beforehand, a viable strategy could be to concentrate on securing the power supply and other vital parts of the national and local infrastructure, such as water and sewers, food and fuel supply, payment system, revenue collection, transportation, health and education, entitlements, public servant salaries, defense, and security.  If you then fix only what breaks among other systems, you'll spend just a fraction of the time and money required to check everything in advance and fix all systems that look suspect.  As long as power and basic services work and people don't riot, having some computers and machines down for a while isn't yet a catastrophe, especially in countries where you don't depend on everything working perfectly, anyway.

If this last concept is indeed viable, then the measurements of Y2K preparedness that apply to OECD countries shouldn't be used for the developing world.  Foreign investment shouldn't be encouraged to flee countries just because they're less prepared than, say, the US and Canada, thereby creating self-fulfilling prophesies of doom.  There's enough trouble in the developing world, anyway.

January 10, 2000
Re: Congratulations!

Y2K was a special challenge, because its worldwide complexity exceeded our human ability accurately to predict its consequences.  However, it was well known in advance, and there was ample time to prepare.  Hence, all went well: no systemic failures occurred.  A lot of money was spent, and, clearly, it was well spent.  It's also clear that unless the effort had been made, there could have been systemic failures, and that would have been bad.

Some isolated Y2K glitches have appeared, as could be expected.  Due to the nature of the systems involved, such problems will keep surfacing for some time to come.  This is normal and can be handled.  IT staff and engineers do this for a living.  If our tools break, we fix them.  What we avoided was an avalanche of problems all at once, which would have exceeded or capability to fix things.

An interesting thought is whether we've learned anything about doomsaying in the process.  Most of the doomsayers have gone quiet, perhaps preparing for Leap Day or the next New Year's.  Those with a wider reputation to salvage are now doing their explaining thing.  Next time around, I believe we can look out for the following characteristics so as not to lose too much time and effort on dealing with them:

All the doomsayers had something to sell, and public apprehension increased their sales.  The goods included the message itself, consulting services, their own writings, emergency supplies, and worthless pieces of land.  It's to be hoped that those who bought will find a way to profit from their investment.
Doomsaying, by its nature, looks at a trend and extrapolates it linearily until a disaster scenario is found.  In real life, everything goes in cycles.  When a dubious trend has continued long enough, common sense kicks in and resources are applied to correct it.  But meanwhile, somebody gets rich on describing the havoc we were headed for.
Most of the criticism of the perceived inaction in the non-English-speaking world came from the United States.  There's a correlation between the lack of language skills of English-speakers and the failure to understand the actual effort expended elsewhere.  Further, as even the CIA admitted by way of explaining its own misjudgment, Americans tend to project their own society and infrastructure on everybody else, ignoring the fact that no other country is as dependent on money and technology as the US.
Some doomsayers strongly touted the domino theory, multiplying the likelihood for interconnected systems to cause a compounded failure even where risks to individual systems were low.  This theory assumes that the world is run by an incomprehensible, uncontrollable web of robots where any glitch will snowball into a major failure.  Reality is different: most IT systems deliver their results to humans who can see if they are wrong.  People do the work; the systems are their tools, and can be fixed if they break.  Interdependent systems were subjected to intensified integration testing.  Embedded systems were replaced if there was reason to believe that they were doing something date-dependent.

Nevertheless, the doomsayers did us a great service: we got more money and resources for the work that we'd have got without them.  So congratulations and thanks to them too!



    Put your trust in the Lord, not in people or things.  God is immutable and totally trustworthy.  He loves you more than any human could ever love you, and if you give your life to him, he will lead you toward the goal he has set up for you, even if your upbringing requires some hardship along the way.  Don't trust your emotions: they vary even with the weather.  The Lord will never fail you.

        LOVE PEOPLE.

    People are human and have their weaknesses.  Don't judge them if they disappoint you or fail to live up to your expectations.  Love them like Jesus loves you: unconditionally, irrespective of what's in it for you, with no strings attached.  They are all God's children and to be loved like you love and care for yourself.  Pray for your enemies: it's not you they're hurting, it's themselves.

        DON'T WHINE.

    Worrying over your own difficulties is the most fruitless way you can waste your time.  It breeds bitterness and loneliness and constitutes outright disobedience to the Lord.  Hence, it removes you from God to such an extent that even your prayers will be ineffective for want of trust, joy, and obedience on your part.  Praise the Lord and give thanks in everything, and concern yourself with caring for others.  The Lord will provide for you in his own good time and in a way that exceeds all your expectations.

        DON'T BLAME.

    Realize that if you are hurt by someone, the essence of the matter is not the offense.  Satan wants you to be offended and to think that you have every right to be so.  But the way back is found by seeing in each disagreement your mutual misfortune where even you as the injured party have to go all the way to meet the other person.

Faith vs. religion as discussed in Walkabout

"It's scary to think of persecutions, though," I ventured.
Oliver agreed.
"Yes, it's a frightening prospect.  However, it could also be a blessing of sorts.  The Christian church retains its original form and purpose only for as long as it's being persecuted.
"Look at the early church: for three centuries, it remained undivided and true to the apostles' teachings, and it became the majority religion in the pagan Roman empire because the heathens could see that Christians, living their faith, had something infinitely more valuable and emboldening than what they themselves had.  The persecutions targeted church leaders more than other Christians, and only the brave, compassionate, and selfless became leaders and teachers.
"We still have this situation in parts of Africa and Asia, and Christians from there put all of us who live securely and comfortably to shame.
"As soon as it's safe to belong to some religion or denomination, its ranks of leaders fill up with politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen, just like those of any other organization.  The death-defying evangelists are beatified, sidelined, forgotten, or declared heretics and killed, and the original gospel is relegated to pre-sales work and to draw crowds on big holidays, where it's always proved its worth.
"From that point onward, most clergy simply become peddlers of guilt."
"That's a rather sweeping statement," I observed.  "How about a bit of commentary?"
"A code of behavior—even an onerous one—and the supervision needed to maintain it can be sold for money, as long as the promised reward is attractive enough.  Just look at the martial arts, as an example.  On the other hand, who's going to pay you for advertising a free gift?  Well, that's evident from any marketing campaign: only the giver of the gift.  So preaching salvation as a free gift by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus requires living on faith, something professional church leaders and clergy aren't very good at.
"This way of thinking is so pervasive in the churches that their clergy have started to believe that Christianity is only about ethical behavior.  So their leaders, who barely believe in God anymore, have nothing to put against the Humanist argument that ethics are better taught without the supernatural mumbo-jumbo of religion.  Without a personal devotion to the risen Christ, all that remains for the churches is tradition, getting together in Sunday finery, moral coercion, ritual, and entertainment."
"Oliver," I said, "please explain this thing about a free gift!"
"OK.  Let's think of it this way.  Let's say that humanity lives on a malfunctioning space ship, headed right into the sun.  The captain, at his own expense, has prepared an escape pod.  Everyone is invited to board it when the time comes to leave, but only a few turn up to get the free ticket."
"The ship's trajectory isn't straight but elliptical, so it takes discernment to understand where it's going.  The on-board entertainment insists on the approach of 'eat, drink, and be merry.'  And it's evident that those who have been to get the ticket are so grateful that they have become unselfish.  That's too high a price to pay: one doesn't just quit looking after one's personal interests while the going is good."
"I'm following," I confirmed.  "But there's bound to be some nagging doubts among those who have heard about the problem but can't be bothered to take a stand.  Maybe they're still waiting to be persuaded?"
"There's a whole industry out there catering to any such uncertainty.  'Join our group, follow our fashions, obey our rules, and pay us money, and we'll numb all your fears and, yes, if it comes to that, we'll get you on board that pod in the end.'"
"That would be the peace-of mind industry, or what?"
"Precisely", Oliver confirmed.  "And, sad to say, most religions and most Christian churches are willing members of that industry."
"But that isn't the way it works, right?"
"No.  You have to go to the captain yourself and make a commitment in order to pick up your ticket.  Nobody can get it for you.  This is the best kept secret in all Christianity.  Letting it out would mean the end of living comfortably for the clergy.  Only a few denominations make it known, but they often put on a big charismatic show instead, to ensure that they're still seen as indispensable by their members."
"So when do we impact?"
"For each one of us," Oliver said, "that's when we die.  If the world comes to an end as the Book of Revelation says, a lot of us will die at the same time.  But it's the very nature of the thing that we don't know when our time is up.  That's how it's meant to be, because hedging your bets and waiting until the odds are right doesn't work.  We only get the ticket if we commit ourselves completely and never look back."
I wanted to get back to the parallel with the martial arts industry.
"Some would take offense at such a direct comparison between religion and business," I noted.
"Hypocrisy, by its nature, is defensive," Oliver confirmed.  "But the analogy is accurate.  Clergy are in the business of evaluating people's actions and outward appearances, and selling a cure, much like the weight loss industry.
 "In an officially accepted church, the objective of a preacher is no longer to share a message at any cost to himself, but to make a living, preferably in a comfortable manner.  Although such a priest or pastor liberally claims the same authority Jesus gave his apostles when he first sent them out to preach, he normally isn't prepared to live on faith as the apostles had to do.
 "So if you're a people person in need of a job, and you chance upon a belief system, led by amateurs, emerging from struggles and persecutions, this is what you do.  You take its original message of faith—ancient mythology, the Gospel of Jesus, the revelations of Mohammed, the writings of Marx and Engels, whatever—and transform it into something entirely different: a code of conduct, against which you can gauge people's performance.  Since you can't supervise every person yourself, the code has to be uncompromising and emotional enough to lend itself to both rueful self-criticism by the individual and callous monitoring by others.  In effect, you take a message of joy, victory, and triumph, and turn it into one of obligation, guilt, and condemnation by the holier-than-thou crowd.
"To make the scheme fly, you have to come up with just the right mix of euphoria over belonging to the in-group and remorse over one's inevitable failings.  When you've got this straight, you also have to cater to births, marriages, deaths, and other rites of passage, plus provide a regular supply of holidays and celebrations according to the seasons.  It's always a good idea to take over the feasts of the old order and rename them after your own saints and potentates; this tends to keep the people happy through the transition.  The result is a lucrative profession that provides peace of mind for everyone involved.  This is the way the early church met its end in the fourth century."
"Very complex, compared with the original idea of a free ticket," I observed.
"Like a different story altogether," Oliver replied.  "The reason is that there are three parties involved, not two.
"If only you and God were concerned, it would be a no-brainer.  God wants you in his kingdom; you don't want to go to hell.  You accept his offer—case closed.  But then there's the church with entirely different interests.  The church wants maximum mileage out of you in terms of your tithes to help it prosper and your participation to help make it appear relevant.
"God's message to you, as recorded in the Bible, is clear and simple: 'You have come to me sincerely and in the name of my son Jesus who already bore the punishment for your sins on the cross.  Those sins are now forgotten and you have eternal life.  Here's how you can help me spread the Gospel, try to make life on Earth a little nicer for those around you, and preserve your integrity and a healthy amount of self-respect for when you come to my kingdom.  And, by the way, you don't owe me anything other than gratitude.'  This message exists in the church but it's well hidden.  What you're taught instead is this: 'Here are all the moral rules we've been able to establish from Scripture and tradition.  Follow them, pay us well, and we'll get you to Heaven.  You're too small to understand God: leave that to us.  Our holy, magic rituals will keep you on his good side.  Amen.'"
"Somehow it seems to me that you're talking about the Catholic Church now," I said.  "Didn't the Reformation change all this?"
"Every revolution only ends up with more of the same.  After the Reformation wars, it became safe and respectable to belong to the Protestant clergy, and the old business model was put right back to work.  In Luther's Catechism, the exhortations to the hearers of the Word have nothing to do with faith, only with their obligation to support the clergy and obey their rulers.  Over the millennia, clergy and theologians have fought each other—sometimes to the death—over the slightest nuances of doctrine, but concerning the primary function of religion as a holy cash cow, most of them have always been in perfect agreement.
"The Catholic Church says nothing about personal salvation but encourages its members to push the envelope of morality to see what they can get away with.  If you go too far, you get a penance to do, and on you go until next Saturday.  Evangelical denominations—the kind that produces Bible-thumping, Creationist, 'born again' Christians—foster bigotry and Old-Testament style legalism to make their members feel superior and keep the checks coming.  A number of Protestant and Orthodox state churches offer respectability and patriotic traditions combined with the feel-good awareness that members are helping finance charity and social work.  But the true message of salvation is as scarce as hens' teeth in nearly all churches.
"The common thread between most denominations is moral coercion: follow Biblical rules to gain social acceptance among church members.  Yet, according to the Bible, the job of a preacher is not to stop sinners from sinning: on its own, that doesn't do them any good, and the effect never lasts.  His task is to convict sinners of their sins and challenge them to repent.  Then he needs to help them accept salvation through Christ's sacrifice for all mankind.  After this, the saved Christian will voluntarily try to avoid further sinning and can benefit from the guidance in the Epistles of the New Testament."
 "Yet all denominations say that they follow the Bible," I commented.
"The Bible," Oliver answered, "is written somewhat like a medical text on some fatal disease—in this case, sin.  A typical medical treatise will describe the progress of an illness from infection to the grisly end.  It'll tell how the disease is spread and how it can be prevented.  If there's a cure, the text will explain it and how it should be applied.  Convalescence and therapy will be discussed.  Some parts of the text are gloomy, some hopeful, some tedious.  Yet every chapter forms a part of the whole.
"Different doctors can take the same treatise and use it for their own professional purposes.  One may specialize in prevention, another in the cure, and yet another in palliative care where treatment has failed.  In the same manner, church leaders pick aspects of the Bible that suit their business agendas.  The guilt peddlers focus entirely on prevention and claim a monopoly on survival strategies while suppressing the fact that a cure—salvation by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus—is available to all who sincerely want it.  Charismatics may talk only about the cure and forget to mention that we're expected to lead a holy life as well.  The preacher that presents a balanced rendition of the Gospel is a rare bird indeed, and is normally at odds with his denomination.
 "An established religion is more concerned with a solid social position than with changing lives.  It makes both membership and salvation contingent on partaking in rituals and paying tithes, while the early church had no such conditions.  It persecutes those who leave it and murders its competitors, whether heathens or heretics.  It transfers holiness from the object of worship to the organization and its leaders.  It dilutes faith in God with faith in the church, and strives to convince you that this faith is all you need.  Although St. Paul says clearly that love is greater than faith, such a church will teach you little about love, least of all by example.
"St. Paul, in I Cor. 1:10-15, wrote a strongly worded condemnation of divisions among the faithful, based on following different authorities.  Nevertheless, this kind of church invariably throws up barricades between 'us' and 'them,' so dissent can be demonized as treason.  Belonging to the church, joining its interest groups, taking part in its activities, and paying your dues become the focal points of a religion that's concerned more with fundraising than with saving souls.  No wonder so many find it impossible to accept such churches and their authority over people's lives.
"Organized religion doesn't have what it takes to bring salvation to anyone.  Only individuals can do that—including, of course, individual pastors.
"Those who teach or practice this kind of religion fall under Christ's denunciation in Mt. 6:1-17: they have had their reward.  If persecutions come, they won't be affected.  But the rest of us may again get an opportunity to show what it means to live one's faith.  And face it: the true Christian church has been persecuted for a long time already.  In countries like Britain, Sweden, and America that have submitted to minority rule by alarmists and proponents of political correctness, it's already illegal to teach the basic Christian message of Christ crucified, because the Bible's account of the crucifixion is so graphic and violent that it could distress unsuspecting, sensitive hearers and leave them with post-traumatic stress disorder."


Father Giuseppe had been quiet until then, but with all eyes on him, he now rose and cleared his throat.
"As Catholics, we've been taught that the Church is here to stay.  The whole idea of an end to time is uncomfortable for the Church, because it would imply the completion of her task on Earth.  Although we pray every Sunday for Christ's return and the coming of his kingdom, the Church has never wanted us to think of this as imminent.  The Church's official view of the Apocalypse and other Biblical descriptions of great catastrophes to come has always been that they're difficult to understand, but likely to be connected with Israel's and the early Christians' struggle against their Roman oppressors.  So we were never encouraged to read the Apocalypse; in fact, most Catholics have no idea of what it's all about."
Father Giuseppe was a Jesuit, which made him uniquely fit to deal with sensitive matters, where the official line of the Church was difficult to reconcile with Scripture.
"However, now it seems that we've come to the time the Apocalypse talks about.  We have the two beasts deceiving all mankind, one of them looking like a lamb—pretending to be Christ's representative, the pope—but speaking like a dragon, that is, like the devil himself.
"And the sad fact is that if the devil were to come among humanity, looking for a religious community to take over for his own purposes, the Roman Catholic Church would be his ideal victim.  This is precisely because we Catholics have been so carefully taught both blindly to trust the hierarchy of our church and not to worry about the end of the world.
"Now it has happened: what our friend Gregorio has just said confirms all the disquieting things that have begun coming down to us from the Vatican.  With our lack of understanding of the Apocalypse, we've been at a total loss as to what has been going on."
"So what are we to do, Father?" Ruggero asked.  "We aren't used to finding things out from Scripture.  We've always come to you to be taught.  You'll have to guide us.  If we can't trust the Church anymore, it falls to you, our own shepherd here in our own town, to tell us what's right and what's wrong."
"I was afraid of that," sighed the priest.  "Well, first of all, everything Emilia and Gregorio have told you is true.  We mustn't allow the government to mark us with that tattoo.  We'll have to live off the land and use our family ties, like we've always done here in the mountains.  We'll come to no harm—we've lived without money for many months already while waiting to have these questions sorted out.
"Second, each one of us should search his or her conscience and make sure we live a life worthy of the bride of Christ.  We, together with everyone else in our position in the whole world, still constitute the true church, even though the official church has become a front for the enemy.
"You ask me to teach you what's right and what's wrong.  Well, you know the Ten Commandments.  They still apply.  Follow them, and you'll be doing what's right.  But our Lord also taught us many other things, and I'll repeat some of them to you.  Don't worry—I'll give you just seven brief passages that will tell you the most important things about living during these last times."
The room had filled up with silent, listening women and children.  More people were there to hear Father Giuseppe than had attended Mass that morning.  It was so quiet that I could hear a mouse or an insect gnawing away at the doorpost behind me.
"Jesus said, 'None of those who cry out, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of God but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.'  You're not going to get away with being pious and calling yourselves religious.  Piousness, in fact, is one of the most hazardous attitudes mankind is heir to—it's just one little step removed from pride and hypocrisy.  No, you have to do God's will.
"What, then, is God's will for us?  Very simple: to follow the Greatest Commandment.  'You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  Love is the most important thing for us, and not just some distant kind of sympathy in the mind, but a love that we express by caring for each other.  That's how we become willing channels of God's love for all his children.
"Many are worried about the idea of loving their neighbors as themselves.  If we're to put ourselves last; will we be left with nothing in the end?  One can easily show that in an economy where everyone only caters to other people's needs, everybody would be well off.  But such an economy isn't realistic, and it isn't necessarily what the commandment means.
"Think about what the Greatest Commandment would imply if the idea were that you're supposed to neglect yourself completely.  The less you'd care for yourself, the less you'd need to care for others while still keeping the commandment.  If self-denial were the objective, those in need among us would have nowhere to turn, while the rest of us could pat ourselves on the back for keeping our commandment.  Such a concept makes no sense: it would lead to economic collapse and mass starvation.
"We need to turn that thinking around.  To be able to look after others, we must look after ourselves first.  If our circumstances allow, we need to be strong, healthy, and capable of caring for our families and our neighbors.  That done, we'll have the resources to make good on the Greatest Commandment and act virtuously in our lives.
"The business community wants you to think of yourself first and only: this tends to maximize their profits.  As a Christian, your concern is for 'us,' not 'me.'  You care equally about all those you can provide for, including yourself.
"An example: many of you wear glasses.  In some families, several people wear glasses.  Glasses get dirty.  Say you're off to clean your glasses and you find that you can clean somebody else's glasses too, while you're at it.  Whose glasses do you clean first?  The answer depends on your motives.  If you're acting the normal way—out of guilt—you'll clean the other person's glasses first and be content that, once again, you've covered your spiritual behind.  But if you're acting out of concern for the other person, you'll clean your own glasses first, so you can see to do a better job on the other person's glasses.  That isn't being selfish, it's being thoughtful, and it's precisely what the Greatest Commandment intends for you to do.
 "I'm here to serve you, but I don't work 24/7—I'd end up dead or burned out, and I'd have deprived you of a pastor.  I need to look after myself so I can look after you.
"If there's a famine, you don't starve yourself so you can feed your children a little more.  When you're dead, who's going to feed them?  Even if one of your children dies, you still need to be able to feed the others.
"Now for the next verse I wanted to quote to you.
"'He who tries to save his life will lose it; it is the man who loses his life for my sake, that will save it.'  Trying to preserve your lifestyle as consumers will deprive you of eternal life.  Giving up your seemingly secure life will be both an adventure and a good shot at ending up on the right side when all this is over.
"'Whoever acknowledges me before men I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.  Whoever disowns me before men I will disown before my Father in heaven.'  We're dealing with a dictatorship.  You can't hope to evade the system and go unnoticed.  Prepare yourselves mentally to let people know what you're doing and why.
"'Because of the increase of evil, the love of most will grow cold.  The man who holds out to the end, however, is the one who will see salvation.'  There's corruption and violence all around us, and many people are arming themselves and isolating themselves from others for fear of being attacked or defrauded.  The command to love your neighbor still stands, however.  In fact, even more is expected of us:
"'My command to you is: Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.'  Whatever they may be doing to you, they're hurting their own prospects more, and they're the ones in need of prayers.
"'And there's no need to fear those who kill the body, but have no means of killing the soul; fear him more, who has the power to ruin body and soul in hell.'  There'll be persecutions; they've already started.  Some of us may be killed.  But that isn't the worst fate that could befall us: losing our eternal life would be much more terrible."


Interestingly, Oyoba's father was a Christian and his mother a Muslim, so Oyoba knew both faiths equally well.
I made a rather insensitive comment to the effect that the two religions really weren't in the same league, and how could he prefer to call himself a Muslim if he had the choice.  One tends to do that kind of thing when one's faith is new and shallow.  Oyoba looked at me with deep sympathy, and corrected me in a most tactful manner that left me quite ashamed.
"Gregory, it's natural for you to feel that your own faith is all you need, and that everyone who believes differently must be mistaken.  You may have been influenced by teachers who had a vested interest in encouraging you to reject every other way of looking at the world.  But there's a fact that you should be aware of: Islam is God's word for two billion people, and no matter how enamored you are with your own version, there's positively nothing you or your Christian ministers can do to change that fact.  So if you're the least bit interested in God's perspective on communicating with all those people, you'd be well advised to keep an open mind regarding their faith and their traditions."
Emy had made no attempt at hiding her dismay at my thoughtlessness.  "It's easy to accept popular prejudice against people you don't know.  One tends to forget that unfamiliar habits don't make others any less human or deserving of respect.  In many Western countries Muslim women have been forbidden to wear headscarves, as if a scarf were somehow a protest against the secularity of their adopted country.  But we forget that, until quite recently, our own ancestors observed the same custom.  My great-great-grandmother, born in the 1890s, wouldn't have dreamt of leaving her home without a hat or a scarf.  Catholic women were required to cover their heads in church until 1983.  Look up images of the Virgin Mary on the Web: among hundreds of results, you may be lucky to find one where she's not wearing a headscarf.
"Muslim women are still living under the same Middle-Eastern misogyny that the Church brought with it from there and inflicted on Europe during the Dark Ages as it introduced the Christian faith.  It took us a thousand years to shake it off and return to the respect for women that our Celtic and Germanic forebears had.  How can we expect Muslim migrants to leave it behind the moment they step on Western soil?"
Emy and I were soon telling Oyoba about our Algerian adventure.  When we came to the preoccupation of the terrorists with smoking and drinking, Oyoba offered us an insight I hadn't thought of before.
"The Holy Quran, of course, forbids the use of alcohol and other addictive stuff.  But thinking of your interest in breaking free from the official payment system, there's another reason not to use such substances.  Nobody's easier to blackmail than an addict.  If you haven't kicked your habit by the time you want to give up the use of money, the system has you just where it wants you.  Either you'll end up taking the mark so you can go on feeding your habit, or you'll be dependent on criminals to keep supplying you with your fix.  You don't want your hands tied when you should have the freedom to choose."
"That's true," I commented.  "I like a beer now and then, and some of your Sicilian relatives, Emy, couldn't get up in the morning without a double-strength espresso in bed.  I think there was more to the emperor's legalization of recreational drugs than meets the eye!  He wasn't content with having most people hooked on prescription medicines.  He wanted a population of addicts, and he wanted the supply of formerly illegal drugs, too, inside the official economy, to make sure that the sick, the hypochondriacs, and the addicts would be dependent on his payment system."
"Giving up a dependence like a drug is doubly difficult," Emy added.  "In the case of each substance, there's a chemical dependence, but the worse bond is your psychological addiction.
"Every day, we reward ourselves by doing little things out of habit.  We prefer certain foods, we use more or less addictive drugs, we think familiar thoughts, and we reexperience our old attitudes and prejudices.  There's nothing in human life that's dearer to us than these regular mental rewards.  That's why we're all conservatives at heart.  That's why, to others, we're predictable and known by our habits.  The strength of this dependence is such that we automatically consider anyone crazy whose habits we can't identify.  No one unsettles us more than an unpredictable person whom we can't categorize.
"TV commercials can be very enlightening.  Advertising agencies employ the best practical psychologists, and know just how to push the right buttons.  Many commercials for addictive beverages such as coffee, caffeine-laced soft drinks, and alcohol, tell us to drink the product in question as a reward to ourselves.  It's very persuasive, this idea that when you deserve a break and a drink, it has to be an addictive drink.  Maybe our receptiveness stems from being denied such drinks in childhood.
"The difficulty we're trying to come to grips with here isn't habits as such.  Many habits are desirable and good: human society and every religion are based on fostering good habits, among other things.  The problem is being told to give up a bad habit by someone who has no idea of your subconscious need to reward yourself.  What we have to understand is this: to successfully rid yourself of an addiction, you have to identify your own self-rewarding scheme and decide that you can live without that particular reward."
"This is very much in line with what I've concluded, myself," Oyoba said.  "Our need for the familiar is such that only the very few can successfully adapt to change without intolerable stress.  And it seems that the most important thing for us is to be among people of our own kind.
"I think we have three basic, biological needs:  Survival, procreation, and belonging to the in-group.  Survival covers food and shelter, fight or flight, and all that.  Procreation includes sex and nurturing.  But stronger than both of those is our need to conform and belong to a group that we perceive to be in the right."
 "I agree," I broke in.  "People will gladly go to their deaths, abstain from sex, and sacrifice their children, if that's what the group requires of them.  This is instinctive behavior based on neurobiology and has been identified with a neuropeptide called oxytocin."
"All of us," Oyoba continued, "except the very rare individualist, belong to this kind of group or groups, and the group tells us what to think.  We begin our relationship with the in-group by deciding—not discovering—that it is in the right.  Consequently, we can't be shaken in this belief: whatever the group tells us to think, we think.
 "The world is full of do-gooders who try to persuade us as individuals to consider this or that matter, to be tolerant and generous, to resist war and work for peace.  People who think we're in the wrong will argue with us or will patiently try to point out our error, and expect us, on our own, to draw conclusions from their insights.  This is unbelievably commonplace and incredibly naïve: we're not going to change the way we think unless our in-group does it for us.
"Media and politicians seem to put on a front of pretense to the effect that if they have called for, say, tolerance and moderation in this fashion, they've done their job—such a shame that it didn't work.  Yet, everybody whose job involves influencing the public knows that there are no groups without leaders, no belief systems without teachers and preachers.  If you want to influence the thinking of the public, you have to change the thinking of the leaders, and that can only be done either through coercion or by showing that it's in the interest—in terms of power and money—of the leaders to comply.
"A powerful and charismatic leader aiming for autocracy, like the emperor is doing just now, knows how to grab the role of de-facto leader of important in-groups, while making doubly sure by intimidating existing leaders into toeing the line.  Leading the public toward new and controversial goals has to be done like that: you can't take away anybody's in-groups; you have to take them over.
"It's this need to be approved and belong that the powerful will always use to manipulate and blackmail people.  Naturally, humans, being such woefully inadequate animals, wouldn't have survived the hunter-gatherer stage without such a herd instinct.  But in the current situation, like under so many previous despots, this basic drive for self-preservation by the human species has, once more, been put to use for the forces of evil."
I wanted to take the matter of evil a little further.
"There's this general idea that our animal nature with its instincts and imperatives is evil as such.  People have spent lifetimes in monasteries and deserts trying to flagellate it to death, only to have it play more dirty tricks on them as soon as they turned around."
"How can it be evil if God made it?" Emy asked.
"It isn't the animal nature that's bad," Oyoba retorted.  "There's no way God would have bothered to put us here on Earth to grow in animal bodies if there weren't some divine purpose to them.  I think the key challenge is placing the animal nature, along with all your talent, in the service of unconditional love."
"What's unconditional love?" I asked.  "It sounds simple enough, but what does it mean in everyday life?
"Have you ever had a dog?" Oyoba asked.
"Sure," I replied.  "When I lived at home, our dog was very much my dog.  She made every visit to my parents something to look forward to later, as well."
"Then you know what unconditional love is," Oyoba concluded.  "It's loving the way dogs love their folks.  No ifs or buts involved.  Like the dog that saved his master's life after the man had taken the dog out in a boat to drown him, and fell into the water himself.  I'm sure God gave us dogs so we'd all know first-hand what he expects of us by way of loving each other."


John asked if I was a Christian, and I answered yes, a new one.  I had to admit that I still had little to go on, but I told them about the book, Basic Christianity, that had opened my eyes.  They knew it well: they had it in their library, too.  To help me along, Adrian volunteered to explain his faith to me in practical terms.
"Life is like a two-story building with a basement," Adrian said.
I was rather taken aback and didn't know what to make of his statement.  I grew up in a house like that, so maybe I should already know all about life, then?  But clearly, there was some further reasoning to come, so I answered with a noncommittal "Really?"
"Yes, that's right!" Adrian affirmed.  "You and I and everybody else live on ground floor.  The landlord and his household live upstairs, but we don't get to meet them, because the stairway is concealed.  When we're born, we're brought down from upstairs; then we live our lives, as it seems, very much on our own terms, and when we die, they bury us in the garden and say that's the end of it.  The lease, which is posted all over the place for all to see, says differently, but we don't want to believe it."
"What does the lease say, then?" I asked, beginning to get interested.
"The lease says that we're only temporary tenants downstairs.  It tells who owns the place, what we're doing there, and where we're going when it's all over.  It gives the terms of tenancy and some sensible advice to make our stay as pleasant as possible.  It also says that in the end, the entire ground floor will be remodeled, and everybody will have to be relocated.  In fact, that'll be a time of rather thorough rearrangement, which will include sorting out even those who were dug down in the garden, as well as the then current downstairs occupants."
"Where does the basement come in?" I asked, hoping to get a picture of the overall situation before going into detail.  I could perceive that Adrian had worked out his model of our earthly existence with care; he seemed like someone who thought a lot and liked to put an argument in precise terms.
"The basement is reserved for those who don't get to move into the remodeled house, where the connection between upstairs and downstairs will have been restored.  Although it's pretty well known that the basement is no pleasant place, the caretaker, who knows he'll end up there himself, does some very efficient recruiting.  He secures his own by encouraging our natural tendency to pride, greed, and selfishness, and leads us to believe that it's our inborn right to ignore the terms of tenancy we've been given."
We enjoyed more tea in silence for a while, as I tried to piece together what Adrian had just said.  It sounded like the old concepts of heaven and hell alright, assuming that God is the landlord and the devil is the caretaker.  But there were interesting parallels with renting a home here, and I wanted to know more.
"What are the terms of tenancy?" I asked, accepting that by referring to a lease Adrian meant the Bible.  "Surely we have to pay the rent, at least, but what else?"
"Well, that's the crux," Adrian answered.  "We don't have access to upstairs and we don't have a currency to pay with.  Nothing of what we have downstairs is of any value upstairs, and, anyway, we literally can't take it with us.
"Instead, the landlord offers us a new kind of status that absolves us of all obligations to him for debts we may have incurred in the past, and which also constitutes our permanent membership in the community that is to occupy the future remodeled premises.  All we need to do is accept that new status.  But this is where the power of the caretaker comes in.  Through disinformation and ridicule he has managed to distort our understanding of this simple option.  He has turned the tide of fashion against it and set up all manner of alternative ways to exploit our natural need for spiritual security.
"Then there's the matter of convenience: even if we can see for ourselves that the house must have been built by someone, we prefer to think that it came about by itself or that it's always been there, and that we can squat in it without any obligations to the owner.  We ignore the central message of our lease, the fact that our life on ground floor serves to sort out those who will move upstairs from those who will go down to the basement."
I found it necessary to keep drawing parallels with what I knew from before.
"The new status is that of being saved, of accepting Jesus, I assume?"
"Yes, of course," Adrian said.
"But why couldn't the landlord approve rent payments made to other tenants?" I asked.  "Clearly, some of us are in need, and he should be happy if we used our nonconvertible currency to look after those he'd otherwise have to support!"
"The lease states clearly that we have no way at all to pay our debt," Adrian replied.  "The privilege of being here is too great and our means are too crude.  In fact, the idea you just put forward is part of the disinformation spread by the caretaker since man first set foot on this planet.  You've just defined the concept of religion."
"Wait a minute!"  I exclaimed.  "I thought you were talking to me about religion just now.  What do you mean?"
"I've been talking to you about faith," Adrian corrected me.  "Religion is something entirely different.  Religion is a human invention.  Take any primitive society: it's evident to everyone that there are forces around that people can do nothing about.  Rivers and mountains, sun and moon, rain and drought, fertility and famine: they're all greater than man.  But man, by his nature, is a problem-solver, and if he can't get his way using his own strength and shrewdness, he'll try bargaining and persuasion.  His obstacle, however, is getting through to those higher powers in order to present his case.  In this he's assisted by his fellow man, the priest, who knows there's power and wealth in acting as a broker between the people and the gods.  The pagan priest is a swindler, selling something that can't be bought, and keeping the proceeds for himself.
"So a religion is born: man brings a sacrifice or does a good deed—pays a price—in order to receive a reward or escape a cruel fate.  The priest takes the money and the glory and uses his influence to shape society to his liking, forming alliances with political leaders as opportunities arise.  The cult leader—a bolder person than the priest—goes a step further by promising you power and luring you with elitism in return for your money.
 "The key concept of religion is 'my will be done—here's the payment,' while faith allows us to say, 'Thy will be done.'  God invites us to have faith in him and advises us on how to show our love for him by loving his children, our fellow human beings.  Faith is something you live and share, while religion is a product you can make a living on."
"I don't quite understand the bit about paying the price," I objected.  "The Old Testament calls for all kinds of sacrifices, and those commandments came from God, didn't they?"
"Yes, they did," Adrian confirmed.  "The true faith was revealed in stages.  The Mosaic Law was given to the Israelites at a time when they knew of no other belief systems than paganism and its rites.  God gave them similar rites, but for the purpose of seeking forgiveness for their sins rather than selfish favors.  The sacrifices he demanded served the dual purposes of testing their sincerity—only the best was good enough—and pointing forward to the sacrifice Jesus later made of himself to atone for the sins of all of us who believe in him.  Without contrition and sacrifice—either sacrifice according to Mosaic law or Jesus' sacrifice of himself—there's no forgiving of sins in the Bible.
"The perversion of Judaism set in when empty observance of the law became the measure of piousness in those who professed to believe in Yahweh, while others reverted to fashionable, local pagan gods."
"How does this relate to Christianity?" I asked.  "Don't Christians try to be good, like both the Bible and all the churches teach?"
"Christianity consists of two opposing forces that coexist but can never be reconciled: faith and religion.  The Christian faith has to do with accepting the new status we talked about: acknowledging that we have no means of bridging the gulf between God and ourselves on our own.  As a result of accepting salvation through Jesus, Christians can expect both the desire and the ability to live lives of compassion toward each other, doing the best they can to be channels of God's love for all people.
"Perfection is something we can never achieve through our own efforts, and God knows that.  Yet, to be able to face him when our physical life is over, we have to be perfect.  This is where faith comes in: Christ already attained perfection in his human life, and went through death in our stead.  When we accept his salvation, he perfects us with his own perfection, and keeps us out of the clutches of spiritual death, which is separation from God forever."
"Fair enough," I noted.
"Religion is a business.  It turns the basic concept of salvation by grace alone on its head and says that we can become acceptable to God by doing good works, following the rules, and paying our tithes.  Religious persons strive to please men, not God; like Jesus used to say, they've had their reward.  Often they are quick to condemn those who are less pious than they.
 "Religion serves the needs of the proud and the cautious, of conservatives who want to show that they respect the values of the dominant, local, and current culture.  As Christians, we follow a revolutionary leader; we have no right to be conservative.  Jesus asked only for faith—be it no greater than a mustard seed—but, in his lifetime, all he got was religion.  For the religious he reserved some selected sayings, many of which begin with the words 'Woe unto you, Pharisees, hypocrites!'
"The typical church teaches a blend of these two opposites: religion with a little faith mixed in for show.  Some, especially the cults, leave out the message of faith entirely.  This is what makes churches so incomprehensible to many of us: their central message is supposed to be based on the New Testament, which is all about faith, but their rites and sacraments reflect religion, whose objectives are political cohesion and fundraising.
 "The political function of myth and religion is to maintain the economic status quo, to perpetuate the fleecing of the sheep in human society.  For this, any strongly emotional belief system will do; it doesn't have to include divine elements.  Thus, in addition to despotic religious institutions, both Communism and blind faith in the virtues of private enterprise have been used to cement the position and prosperity of ruling elites."
"Religion, then, leads to the basement?" I inquired.  I still wanted to explore how Adrian's two-story building applied to our discussion.
"That's not for me to say," Adrian replied.  "Pride and selfishness lead there, that much I know.  But I'm not one of those who maintain that everybody else's version of religion sends its followers to hell.  I'm more inclined to think that God can use every belief system and its spiritual teachers to reach out to someone who can be saved.  He's omnipotent, isn't he?  Somewhere among the sectarian dogma there's bound to be a ray of divine truth that'll catch the attention of those who have it in them to receive it.  I believe there are good shepherds among the clergy of every denomination and every religion that isn't just a cult or plain idolatry for the sake of fundraising."
"My skipper Oyoba," I commented, "pointed out that Islam is God's word for two billion people, and that there's nothing we Christians can do about that."
Adrian agreed.  "He's right.  Belief systems have a clear role set out for them.  God could easily speak directly to the mind of every human.  But then we'd be no different from the angels, who have an undeniable knowledge of God and no doubts to overcome.  God limited our means of perception so we'd have to work on our understanding of him and help each other find the way.  We value our communion with God more when we have had to beat our own path to his door.
"Being herd animals, we depend on our groups to provide us with our beliefs.  Most people can only be reached in matters of faith through their established belief system.  So God has chosen to communicate with us through those belief systems, no matter how imperfect they are and disregarding their bickering over who's right.  No matter how much someone like me gripes about organized religion, God still uses it to reach out to humanity because there's nothing better available.
 "Another thing to remember is that we have no business condemning followers for being misled by leaders they trust, nor misguided teachers for teaching what they think is right.  People in general will sincerely believe they're doing the right thing if told to do so by a revered and established institution like the religion they were born into.  God won't blame them for accepting religious beliefs if they know of nothing else.
"But those who have a choice, those who have received the message of faith and have rejected it, are no more helped by religion than by atheism.  If we knowingly turn down the free ticket upstairs, we deny ourselves the chance to move there.  No matter how high we build our ladders of conformity and respectability, they can't go through the ceiling."
"Why is the opposite view so popular?" I asked.  "In my experience, just about everyone with an interest in church is the kind of religious person you described.  They can be ever so nice and helpful, but the moment they find fault with you, their judgment can be severe."
"You'll find that there's another kind of believer around, too," Adrian told me.  "But, indeed, they are few and far between.  The others, the religious people you mentioned, may follow every commandment that involves outward appearances, but they never follow the Greatest Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
"Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that people shouldn't go to church.  People's understanding of faith is held and formed in community.  I'm saying that conformity and ritual are no tickets to Heaven.  St. Paul, in Romans 12:2, tells us in so many words not to conform to the ways of the world.  Yet, church normally is all about either conformity to Conservative politics, prejudice, and social mores or, when a church sees itself merely as an entertainment enterprise, conformity to those very ways of the world.
 "It would be impossible to fulfill Christ's command to reach out to all people on Earth without a church, but, alas, a church is an organization.  The problems we've been talking about arise when being part of that organization becomes too comfortable, and the clergy forget their commitment to humility and self-denial, along with ceaseless penance and renewal."
"I'm still confused," I complained.  "Is it or is it not right to do good to your fellow man?"
"The question," Adrian countered, "concerns something else: whether a good deed was done out of love for the other person, and thereby for God, or for your own purposes.  This simple test determines whether you're righteous or self-righteous.  The unselfish Christian charity work quietly going on all over the world isn't an attempt at earning points with God.  It's done out of love for the suffering and a burning desire to right what's wrong.  It is what the Bible calls 'the fruits of the Spirit.'  You can be an atheist and still act out of love.  Evil acts tell of mental health problems, desperation, or an evil heart; good acts may be the fruits of love springing out of a savable soul, but they don't buy you anything with God.
"You can't change what you've done, but you can clean up your attitudes.  God always gives us the benefit of the doubt, so if we repent our sins, he doesn't grade us on our deeds.  He may choose us on our attitudes.  The seven traditional mortal sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth—are attitudes, not acts.  In like manner, the Koran, in Sura 33, verse 35, lists a number of selfless habits and attitudes characterizing men and women for whom Allah has prepared forgiveness and great reward.
"This simple idea about attitude is too hard for the churches, and you won't hear it from them.  The Catholic Church, the custodian of the ancient wisdom of the seven mortal sins, lists them as evil inclinations to be resisted, but leaves it at that.  Her priests keep assigning penance for all our offenses and omissions, deed by miserable deed, and the faithful always come back for more.  Protestants are no better: a prominent evangelist of the twentieth century wrote a book on the seven mortal sins, but he used them merely as headings under which he grouped all the sinful acts he wanted his readers to give up.  It's like treating symptoms without doing anything about the underlying disease: all that's certain is that the patient will keep returning, and that a lot of money will change hands.  Or, from the individual's point of view, it's like trying to stop smoking without really wanting to.
"Every religion offers its followers rules for their behavior.  People are desperate for clear-cut guidance, and they'll pay anything for rules that they find acceptable and that make them feel they belong to the group that's in the right.  This is part of our genetic, animal nature, and just about instinctive.  Watch children at play: before they do anything at all, they settle the rules.  Not democratically—the older children dictate them.  But everybody agrees that there has to be rules.  For children, this is right and necessary: that's how they learn the values of their social group and become well-adjusted adults.
"But afterwards, most adults, too, settle for or seek out a belief system that continues the rule-based focus on behavior when it's no longer necessary.  The idea with following rules is that you can blame the one who gave them for the consequences of your conduct.  This isn't adult behavior, but it guarantees the purveyors of belief systems a living.  Imposing rules on others, on pains of being sent to hell, is an effective means of keeping underprivileged members of society in their place.  Yet, acting morally out of fear, or, for that matter, under surveillance and computer control, doesn't make anybody a better person.  What God is looking for are people who treat others with compassion, even in hard times, and who can take the responsibility for their own actions.
"If you mean to work out your salvation by following rules you'll have to follow them all.  At that point, you'll begin condemning others for being less perfect than you.  That's why God doesn't recommend that approach: it doesn't work.  In fact, he made the rules conflicting, so it's impossible to follow them all.  There's a shortcut: accept that you need help, refrain from judging, and in all your actions, try to resolve conflicts and seek what's best for the most people.  Love God above everything, and your neighbor as yourself."

"Now, somewhere in the Bible it says, 'Faith without works is dead,'" I protested.  "So good works are necessary, or what?"
"Do you know what you just did?" Adrian asked.
"You just rewrote the Bible.  You put words in St. James's mouth that he never uttered.  The way you rephrased his statement, it would say that you have to do good works to be saved.  But that isn't what he wrote.
"Can you hear the difference between these two statements: 'A body without breath is dead' and 'if you breathe, you'll stay alive?'"
"Yes," I replied.  "The first is a diagnosis; the second is a conditional statement.  The first statement is pretty accurate; the second isn't even close.  You could be breathing poison gas!"
Adrian lit up.  "Now you're talking!  'Faith without works is dead' is a diagnosis.  The reason you so readily changed its meaning is that you're stuck in wishful thinking about being able to bargain with God.  You can't.
"To approach God, you need to get rid of the attitudes you can't bring into his presence: selfishness, hate, anger, greed, pride, and so on.  But it's he who picks you, not you presenting an admission ticket in the form of your good works.
"St. James doesn't say that your good works are going to save you.  He says that a faith so shallow that it produces no good works isn't the kind of faith that's going to save anybody.  
"Gregory, what we're trying to do here is to sort out cause and consequence.  Since about 1,700 years, the church has been telling us that its magical sacraments and moral living are going to get us to Heaven.
"Yet the New Testament consistently states that salvation comes first and holiness is its result.  When it deals with Christian conduct, its message is 'you have been saved; now you have the opportunity to live the way you'll be leading your lives in the Kingdom of God—unless, of course, you blow it first and revert to selfishness, materialism, and superstition.'
"Those Bible passages don't say, 'act thus and thus, and you'll go to Heaven.'  They say things like, 'you belong to God: here's how you can show that you're worthy of him.'  Or, 'you are God's people: set yourselves apart from the heathens.'  It took centuries of effort by the best brains of the church to explain how these clear statements can come to mean their exact opposite.  The resulting brainwash is so powerful that we automatically read such Bible passages backward like you just did.
"Look at Jesus' last talk with his disciples before he was crucified.  You'd think that the instructions he gave then would be the most important advice he could muster.  Yet he didn't give them a list of moral rules to observe after his death.  The central thing he said and repeated was, 'My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.'  Unconditionally, that is.  He loved them with no strings attached, even the one who betrayed him.  Even the Roman soldier whose ear St. Peter cut off: Jesus put it back."
Barbara had found the passage Adrian was talking about in John 15.  "At the time, Jesus also said, 'If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love.'"
"Don't read just John 15," Adrian replied.  "In John 14 Jesus says, 'Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.'  The two statements taken together express the idea that loving Jesus and keeping his commands are two sides of the same coin.  Remaining in his love doesn't mean doing things so he won't reject you.  I already told you that you can't bargain with God.  It means choosing to remain in his love and choosing to live your life as he taught you.  It's a matter of taking sides.  Are you on the side of the guy who bought your life with his own and tells you to love without conditions?  Or are you still with the other guy who lost you your eternal life to begin with, and who even now whispers in your ear that you can have your cake and eat it too, remain a bigot at heart while showing off hypocritical acts of charity?
 "The commandments Jesus gave his followers don't aim at maintaining moralistic perfection like the Law does.  They express aspects of holiness.  Holiness doesn't just happen; you have to work at it.  Jesus' commandments include things like 'don't judge,' 'love your enemy,' 'love God above everything and your neighbor as yourself,' 'do to others what you would have them do to you,' 'turn the other cheek,' 'go the extra mile,' 'don't worry,' and 'be merciful.'  There are around 40 of these commandments; they're easy to find on the Web."
"But wait a little!"  I interjected.  "What's all the talk about books being opened on Judgment Day?  Eventually, we'll all be judged on our deeds, won't we?"
John took over the thread.  "That depends on your own choice.  If you've accepted the offer of salvation we've been talking about, remained faithful to God, and lived your faith, your past deeds and your remaining human frailty won't matter.  It's those who elect to be graded on their actions that will be so judged.  For them, not a jot or a tittle has changed in the Law.  And no one comes even close to perfection that way."
"How do you choose the second alternative?"
"By trusting your own moralistic perfection over your need for God's mercy and forgiveness," John answered.  "And by judging others by some set of rules; this ensures that you'll be judged by the same rules yourself."
 "Earlier, you seemed to be talking about some kind of self-help that doesn't involve the church," I observed.  "But the churches quote Jesus as saying that no one comes to the Father except by him, so we need them and their formulas for salvation."
Adrian continued the tutoring.  "He also said, 'I am the way.'  Not a church, not a ritual, but he himself.  He delegated a lot to the church, but not the selection of who comes to the Father.  This decision he sovereignly reserved for himself, and, contrary to what the clergy would have you believe, they can't stop him from picking whomever he wants, even someone who's never heard of him.
"Jesus instituted a church to help him with outreach and administration.  Power-hungry men, corrupting the teachings of both apostles and reformers, split it up into denominations.  Many of these, each in its particular, fanciful doctrine, claim to have the monopoly on the keys to Heaven.  Be wary of those with such claims."
"Why?" I interjected.
"Try a simple logical exercise," Adrian suggested.  "If even one of them were right, then—since they all base their identical claims on the same Bible—they must all be right, and every person on Earth is going to hell.  Conversely, if even one of them is wrong, we still have a chance, and whether the others are right or wrong is no longer relevant.  The whole idea is just another part of the clergy's struggle for turf and revenue.
"Each denomination has its own formula, and each formula has only symbolic value.  They amount to so much magic, nothing else.  Why settle for myth and magic when we have a record of the actual way Jesus chose some of his apostles?  One he found collecting taxes, four he told to stop fishing, two he just picked up, one he nearly blinded.  But he called each of them personally.  He didn't say, 'Go to church and complete a formula!'  It was always, 'Follow me!'"
"You're talking about some central things in the churches, like the sacraments," I interjected.  "Time was when you'd have been burned at the stake as a heretic already…"
"Yes, this line of thought is heretical alright," Adrian confirmed.  "So why don't we look at the Eucharist itself, or Holy Communion, as applicable, since I have nothing to lose?  Jesus held up the bread and the wine in turn and said, 'this is my body and blood, respectively.  Do this in remembrance of me.'  According to some denominations, bread and wine magically, but invisibly, become Jesus' body and blood during the ceremony.  This implies that each Eucharist held in thousands of churches the world over is a holier occasion than the original Last Supper: there at the table, Jesus' body and blood were still on his person, and it would have been entirely irrational to interpret his words in the literal sense like we're supposed to understand them today."
Adrian took the sugar bowl and the creamer and placed them in front of me.  "Let's say that the sugar bowl is me and the creamer is you.  I'll move them around a little"—he shuffled the two back and forth until their placement was opposite to where they started—"now tell me: where am I?"
"Here," I replied, pointing at the sugar bowl.
"Well, no, I'm right here, as a matter of fact!  That's the sugar bowl.  We used the two dishes as representations of us, but that didn't turn them into us.  I used a common figure of speech when I said that the sugar bowl was me.  So did Jesus when he said that the bread was his body and the wine was his blood.  The early Christians did meet and eat together, and they did break bread and share a cup of wine, remembering the sacrifice Jesus had made for them.  St. Paul points out that sharing in one loaf of bread signifies the oneness of the congregation in Christ.  In the Bible, Communion isn't a means to secure or maintain salvation as the Church would have it.  It's useful to ask, 'who benefits from this?'  The answer is that the churches and their clergy benefit from having turned the symbolic memorial meal into a mandatory sacrament that only they can administer.
"No doubt some symbolic acts, like an adult baptism, can help in defining a turning point.  Since Jesus is no longer physically present and here for us to follow, we're more comfortable if we can connect our new direction to something tangible such as an awe-inspiring event.  John Wesley pointed out that this is much like choosing a destination at a crossroads: you know where you're headed because you made a conscious choice, and the crossing is the point in space and time you relate your decision to.  Churches try to provide such experiences through their rituals and sacraments.  But no amount of ritual can add up to a ticket to heaven."
"Isn't it all pretty hopeless, then?" I wondered.  "I could want to be saved ever so sincerely, but if he doesn't pick me, I'm still lost."
"There's an ironclad guarantee involved," Adrian retorted.  "If you come to Christ in humility and offer your life to him with no strings attached, he will choose you.  He's said that in so many words.  You can gain a place with God, but you can't earn it."
"Very well," I said, "but how do I know that I'll be good enough for him in the future?  I'm no saint."
"You're almost there, Gregory.  Here's the cinch.  If you have given your life to Jesus, he has already reserved you for himself.  He'll send experiences your way that will help you mature.  Your greater or lesser goodness is merely your thanks to him for what he did for you on the cross."
John continued the discussion.
"This knowledge about God's plan for mankind seems to have been there all the time, in most of the main religions of the world, as a vestige behind the elaborate systems of worship the priests established in order to secure their own power and wealth.  If you dig deep and allow for some distortion over the centuries and the millennia, you often find the basic message about returning to God by repenting your sins, accepting God's mercy, and voluntarily living his principles of truthfulness, obedience, and unconditional love."
"So this isn't something unique to Christianity, then?" I asked.  
"Not at all," John answered.  "The Jewish Scriptures, by which I mean the Old Testament, emphasize this idea from cover to cover.  Jesus was a Jew and taught from the Old Testament, remember?  He didn't have a problem with Jews or Judaism; he had a problem with organized religion.  If he came back today to teach what he taught then, most leaders of organized religion would want him crucified all over again."
"Hey, hold it!" I exclaimed.  "Surely you're not including Christian leaders in that statement, are you?"
"Yes, I am," John asserted.  "Organized religion is still the same as it was then; it hasn't changed.  Conservative religious leaders have been living comfortably on moral coercion for thousands of years.  Why change something that works?  You try to advocate love and tolerance, and those who make their living from moral coercion will clamor to have you silenced.
 "Jesus did away with moral coercion and replaced it with unconditional love and voluntary compliance with conscience and good advice.  This was a concept his contemporaries could not understand, and, to most of them, his teachings and parables remained mysteries.  The apostles did their best to clarify the matter, but by the time the persecution of the early church ended, moral coercion was firmly back in its place as the only workable basis for a revenue-generating ecclesiastical organization.  The occasional enlightened evangelist can talk about salvation as a free gift until he's blue in the face: people will just turn around and ask for the rules they're supposed to obey and impose on others.
 "But back to the basic message we just discussed.  Islam teaches the same thing: repent your sins and return to God.  Take Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, whatever: scratch the surface and you always find the same idea.  It was very prominent in the old beliefs of American Indians and Australian Aborigines.  Christian mission to these nations thus was rather redundant, which may help explain the enthusiastic way the clergy supported the genocides of the aboriginal populations of Australia and North America.  Conversion by the sword in partnership with political expansion became the preferred strategy when the religious message had little novelty to offer, just like with Muslim mission in Europe during the Ottoman Empire.
"The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—is the same in Baha'i, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, at least.
"If you want to know what's divine in the different Christian denominations, look at what they have in common.  The differences between them are mostly human invention for human purposes, and have been put there with the specific objective of dividing and conquering, to provide leaders with loyal and committed followers."
"As in throwing in your lot with somebody," Barbara interjected.  "Once you've accepted, or been born into, somebody's belief system, you have a vested interest in thinking they're right, or you'll make a fool of yourself if you have to concede that they were wrong.  So you shut out all other points of view in order to protect your conviction and your traditions.  Plus, you get a lot of help from social pressure: in many places, there are still harsh punishments for leaving the local religion."
 "I've heard another comparison between religion and faith," Sarah said.  "Would you like to hear it?"
"Of course," I answered.  "Fire away, like my friend Emy would say!"
"The difference between religion and the Christian faith," Sarah began, "is demonstrated every year by that jolly old elf, Santa Claus.  Santa makes a list and checks it twice: he sets out to reward those who have been good.  Santa Claus institutes a religion, in this case temporary parent-worship, which, mercifully, ends the minute the presents have been secured.  In his book, there's no pardon and no way out of a bad record even if the guilty understand their failure.
"This is a modern perversion of the original story about Santa.  The historical model for Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was a fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor, the Asian part of today's Turkey.  He didn't invent Christmas gifts—they had been given at that time of the year since centuries—but he gave them to orphaned street children, unloved urchins who didn't deserve them and knew it.  He did so not just out of his good nature but also to illustrate the unearned gift of salvation available to all of us who are willing to admit our sins and call on Jesus for help."
What an interesting thought.
"So the commercial Santa Claus is a heathen," I mused.  "That's what keeps alive this idea that you have to buy your salvation by being good!  Santa is the only exponent of Christianity most people ever encounter, and, knowing no better, they let the cartoonists tell them that God—or St.  Peter—will decide their eternal fate based on a list of their doings just like Santa!"
"You said it," Sarah replied.  "The true message about salvation through God's grace and the blood of Christ just doesn't make it into the headlines.  It's too undramatic, and it threatens the cash flows of all those who are out there selling their services as intermediaries.  Cutting out the glitzy ritual and the complicated dogma takes away the entertainment value, and most people lose interest.
"Salvation through grace alone, as a free gift, is the central message of Christianity.  But the churches don't want to tell this to anybody on a personal level.  So they hide the salvation concept in plain view in hymns and by making it a mechanical piece of boilerplate that's rattled off as a routine chant in their liturgy.  No churchgoer experiences that chant as a personal message.
"Salvation isn't explained in Catechism.  It's blocked out in all church teaching by talk about sin and suffering, legalism and behavior.  This leaves the average Christian with the impression that salvation is an automatic by-product of going to church; that regularly partaking of some interactive entertainment, maintaining a pious mien for an hour, and doing the required calisthenics is going to accomplish what, in truth, only a personal commitment to Jesus can do."
"Also, not that many people are willing to proclaim such a message," Adrian added.  "Messing with established cash flows is the most dangerous thing you can do in any walk of life.  Every prophet in the Old Testament did just that, as they preached repentance and turning away from idols.  They took away business from well-established pagan priests, and, normally, they paid for that with their lives.  So did Jesus Christ, throwing the merchants and money changers out of the Temple and telling people that they needed just one rule, the Greatest Commandment.  He was ruining the business of both merchants and experts on Mosaic Law.  Every reformer of the faith after him did the same thing to some established and corrupt branch of the Church, and most were killed for it.  Even the prophet Mohammed made powerful enemies, teaching that Muslims were to face Allah directly."


     28.  Creation

It was a grand feeling to be back on the land and help out with the early spring work at the farm.  Before I knew it, the week was almost over, and I realized that Laura was going to arrive the next day.  I was reliving my Christmas expectations, undisturbed by thoughts about who was the real Santa.
That evening, John and Sarah were going to attend a lecture at the church hall in the nearby town.  John had asked me if I'd like to join them, and I had gladly accepted the invitation.
John's old car agreed to start, and we were on our way.  The evening was overcast and very dark.  Ours seemed to be the only vehicle on the road, and the distant lights of occasional farmhouses did nothing to dispel the feeling of utter loneliness.  John said nothing during the drive—he seemed lost in thought.  Sarah must have felt a need to lighten our spirits and started a conversation about the man we were going to hear that night.  She had met him before and was impressed with his insights.  It seemed that he specialized in new perspectives on things, and he usually managed to keep his listeners attentive, although it was sometimes hard to know if you had fully understood him.
After the isolation on the road it was a complete contrast to find the hall nearly filled.  We got good seats, nevertheless—somebody had been holding them for us—and everyone around seemed to know Sarah and John.  I was introduced to people left and right, and heard more names in five minutes than I could have memorized in a week.  Then the speaker arrived and the lecture began.
The lecturer, whose first name was Cliff, started by stating his purpose, which is always nice to know.  He said he deplored the fact that we were being taught one thing by science, and another by the Church, and that it was seen as practically an obligation for Christians to disbelieve the scientific point of view.  Not surprisingly, then, nearly everyone, including a lot of clergy, chose to consider the Church's official standpoint untenable.  And, since that standpoint was supposed to be based on the Bible, it would seem that the latter was just a collection of ancient legends without any meaning to modern man.
Cliff's objective, then, was to reconcile the two opposing views and to show that the Bible was in full agreement with the scientific version of the origins of the world and of man as a species.  But he warned his hearers that he'd be rocking the boat of the Church quite heavily, and that it would be hard to find a churchman who would endorse what he had to say.
The central part of the lecture went something like this.
"The material world, as Shakespeare pointed out, is a stage set apart out of reality.  On the stage, certain limitations apply.  Only three dimensions are available.  Time seems to progress evenly and endlessly in one direction: we're too close to it to be able to perceive its beginning and its end.  Gravity holds everything in its place.  Certain physical laws are in force, as long as you don't look too deep into either the atoms or outer space.
"The set on the stage is a planet absolutely stunning in its beauty and in the creative genius it bears witness to.  Every living organism—except hairless man, his domestic animals, and his cultivated plants—is perfect in a perfect environment.  At long intervals, a phase in the preparation of the set and its resources was completed and some of the organisms that took part in that phase were removed and others put in their place.
"The designer had lots of time to make working prototypes of the actors.  He preferred to let the prototypes prove themselves in the actual environment over designing the end product from scratch without any feedback.  Thus he laid the foundations for the practical science of industrial design.  Just as with other forms of life, he used minerals from the earth's crust, literally the dust of the earth, to form a succession of hominins, culminating in a creature in his own likeness, Homo sapiens.
"Then, some time between twelve and six thousand years ago, in his infinite love, he took one of the latest prototypes and gave it an immortal soul.  He put it, too, in a perfect environment, but since the new man was rather fragile, his environment had to be confined to a garden at Eden.  Seeing that the man was lonely, his maker cloned him and made a woman with the same kind of immortal soul.  He walked with them daily in the garden and taught them to care for it and use it for their own needs.
"Why did God go to all this trouble?  Making billions of years of time must be quite a job.  Figuring out how things might be made to work in just three dimensions, on the other hand, could pass for a hobby.  Creating living organisms certainly is occupational therapy of the highest kind, but millions of different species?
"We have a clue in the Bible.  Satan rebelled against God and convinced a third of the angels to take his side.  God confined them to Earth to await destruction.  Meanwhile, God was left with two thirds of the angels—a lot less than what he expected to have.
"We don't know what he had planned to accomplish with his heavenly host, but clearly, after this loss he was understaffed.  Was it, perhaps, at this juncture he said to his remaining archangels, 'Let us make mankind in our image?'  We know that we're different from angels, so we represent a new approach, hopefully more resistant to being misled.  Our loyalty to God comes about not by hard-wired design but through our own choice and often in spite of adversity.  Maybe that makes it more lasting.  However, this method could be difficult to combine with a free will.
"But what did the new couple do?  They went and ate that infamous apple.  Nothing wrong with apples, but they had been given a restriction in their paradise so they could show obedience to their maker.  Not too much to ask under the circumstances, really.  But now they had changed the rules: they, too, had rebelled.  Their maker is perfect; nothing imperfect can endure his presence.  Unless...
"With their souls, men also received ambitions.  For millions of years, hominins and prehistoric humans had existed as Stone-Age nomads capable of little organization and leaving few traces of themselves.  Then, after Adam, over a space of just a few millennia, the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age dawned, kingdoms and empires arose, writing and science were introduced.  All this is the mark of the independent will God gave Adam and Eve and their descendants, to use for good or for evil as they would choose.
"The rest is history.  Mankind sank to the most miserable depths of wickedness.  Having drowned all of Adam's descendants save one family in the Flood, God gave humanity a fresh start, but within a few generations, their ways were as evil as before.  Then God set one nation aside for himself and gave it a law, and some went on breaking it while others made it their selfish pride to try to fulfill every letter of the law while despising those who couldn't or wouldn't.
"These living souls made complete fools of themselves and became totally unfit to be allowed back into the regular regions of reality, once their stint on the physical stage was over.  But their maker still loved them.  He loved every one of them as a parent loves his or her child.  God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
"The Lord Jesus, Son of God, became a human being and lived a short physical life of thirty-three years.  Then he, who had never done anything wrong, laid down his life as a voluntary sacrifice for all humans.  He rose from the dead, demonstrating that physical death is temporary.  The eternal life in the company of God that every one of us has forfeited now became ours for the asking.  Perfection before God that we could never attain through our own efforts, because we're sinners by nature, is now available to us as a free gift, through the blood of Jesus and by the grace of God.  But true to his initial design of man as an intelligent being with a free will, God forces no one to return to him.
"This is why becoming and being a Christian is an independent act of your own will.  Whether you've been brought up in a Christian environment or not, only you can decide if you're going to be a Christian.  Being born again, or born from above, is a very accurate description of what takes place when you accept the Lord Jesus and the supreme sacrifice he made for your sake.  At physical birth, you receive physical life.  When you accept Jesus you receive the kind of life that applies in the larger reality, the eternal life you and I and everyone since Adam have forfeited through our rebellion against our maker."
Slightly dazed from trying to grasp all that, I registered little of the discussion during the compulsory cup of tea following the lecture.  On the way back in the car, I tried to sort out my thoughts by asking questions of John, who was now chattering away and full of enthusiasm over Cliff's speech.  What I wanted to know was whether Cliff had meant that God made the world and the first humans, or if he had been talking about evolution like everybody else.  John's answer was a simple "Yes."
"Yes to which question?" I insisted.
"Both," John answered.  "He refuted two opposite views that turn out to have very similar purposes.  View number one goes like this:  'Since I'm a traditionalist and I want to think that my understanding of the Bible's creation account is the only correct one and must be taken literally, I'll refuse to believe any so called scientific proof that things happened differently.'  View number two, on the other hand, starts from the opposite extreme: 'Since I want to think that God doesn't exist, or if he does, that he is irrelevant, I'll pretend that this subjective premise is, in fact, a valid conclusion drawn from scientific findings.'
"The first view denies God's sovereign right to use any methods he wants, and to choose the way in which he preferred to communicate the account of his creation work to us.  It tries to squeeze God into the limitations of fourteenth-century human understanding.  The second view starts out from the preconception that there must be no God, and replaces him with mere chance.  But both the creationist who fails to see that the fossil record is a revelation from God just like the Bible, and the evolutionist who thinks he has proven that there is no God, make the same mistake: they put human pride and narrow-mindedness above God."
"So what was Cliff saying then?  I thought he was talking about the evolution of modern man, beginning with early hominins millions of years ago.  Those hominins were quite ape-like, weren't they?
"Cliff was talking about a design process, not about spontaneous evolution," John replied.  "But to answer your second question first, the early hominins were much more human than ape-like.  You see sketches and animations of them all hairy and with faces like apes, but that's pure guesswork.  Although we have only pieces of their skeletons, it's evident that they were human and walked on two legs.  Apes and hominins, although apparently descended from common ancestors, split up maybe 4 to 7 million years ago, depending on whom you ask.
"What's significant is that there was a distinct number of different types of hominins, not a continuous chain of slowly changing specimens, as you'd expect to find if we were looking at just the effects of random mutations caused by cosmic radiation.  The different species of hominins appeared and disappeared rather abruptly, with some rare cases of intermediate types in between.  Some of the species coexisted at the same time, but they didn't change much over the span of their existence.  If we compare the brain volumes of the succession of hominins, it's evident that God chose to develop our capabilities in stages: first basic survival skills, then the ability to make and use tools, then communications, competitiveness, teamwork, and so on.  We know, as an example, that Homo erectus knew how to make stone tools, but never invented anything new and couldn't even be bothered to climb a small hill for better quality stone if enough bits were available at its foot.  In contrast, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens would scale mountains to quarry the best stone and carry it long distances to their homes."
I was more confused, not less.
"Let's get back to basics.  As I remember the creation story, God made Adam from clay or something, and then took one of his ribs and made Eve out of that.  Why bother if there were people around already?  Or rather, wasn't Adam the first human being, and if so, was he a hominin or something else?"
John had the patience of an angel, and just then he needed every bit of it.
"Adam was a Homo sapiens like you and I alright.  What Cliff tried to say is that the Bible's account of Creation pretty much agrees with the knowledge we have from fossils and the like.  First of all, Adam, like every living thing including you and me, was made of the dust of the earth.  That means stuff like carbon, minerals, water, and so on.  The point in mentioning this in the Bible is that it's no mean feat to make a living being in the image of the eternal God from the same materials the dead, mineral environment of the earth is composed of.
"Adam was the first man with an immortal spirit.  He became a living soul, the Bible says; from that you can deduce that, first, he was something else.  Our friend Cliff wants us to combine trust in the validity of the Bible's claim that God made the world with acceptance of legitimate scientific observations, such as the fact that Homo sapiens has been around for 300,000 years.  Adam, on the other hand, was made a living soul perhaps ten thousand years ago.  The radical changes in Stone Age living Cliff mentioned, such as cities, trade, construction projects, government, and slavery, happened at about that time, and they began in the Middle East, where Genesis places Adam and Eve.  So evidently, God took his time and allowed Homo sapiens to be perfected until he had one individual that was just right for his purposes.  Then he took this individual, Adam, and breathed his Spirit into him.  God also chose to make Eve by cloning her from Adam's rib, which was a straightforward way of ensuring that she was just as perfect as Adam."
 "But that last thing about Eve just doesn't make sense.  How can you make a whole adult human from a rib?"
"Well, you or I can't, but God can.  He performs miracles all the time.  Don't you think you're a miracle?  If you want to know what a miracle is, take empty space and see what you can do with it.  Everything else in the universe is a miracle.  We just take too many things for granted because we're used to them.  Still, even if we use the regular definition of a miracle, the suspension of natural laws by God, miracles do happen every now and then.  Some are well documented, like the healings at Lourdes; dozens of them have passed years of scrutiny by doctors and bishops and have been officially declared miracles by the Catholic Church."
"Can I just back up a little again?" I asked.  "The Bible says that the world, including Adam and Eve, was made in a week, doesn't it?  Well, then the planet didn't exist for all those billions of years, but God made it!  And if God made Adam and Eve, and they were the first humans, then there weren't any before them, or what?"
"You realize that Genesis, as a story, is pretty old, don't you?" John asked.
As I nodded consent, he continued.
"Its creation myth is compiled from several different sources, dated between the ninth and fourth centuries BC.  There are inconsistencies between the parts, but they're less important than the central message, namely, that the One God of Israel is credited with the whole of Creation, all the way from the beginning, when there was nothing.  This principle is quite different from most other ancient mythologies.
"Moreover, as Bronze Age creation stories go, Genesis is pretty accurate.  Science shows that everything happened much like Genesis 1 tells.  (Genesis 2 comes from a different source and contains many inconsistencies.)  First the earth cooled off and all manner of mist and vapor cleared, revealing sun and moon.  Then life appeared in the seas, then on land, and finally humans came on the scene.  According to our dating methods, all this took about fifteen billion years.  But St. Peter, quoting Psalm 90, wrote that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day."
"Well, that would allow for six or seven thousand years," I calculated, "but not for fifteen billion!"
"You weren't listening," John corrected me.  "That wasn't an arithmetic statement, it was an allegory.  St. Peter didn't mean to hand us another crutch in place of the old one of a calendar week.  A thousand years is a long time; what St. Peter meant is that God is outside of time and can fit any long period of time into a working day, or conversely, cut short what to us appears like an eternity and just skip past it.
"The dating of Genesis 1 is very similar to that used by geologists.  They look at sediments in the earth and say that a certain era produced this layer, and another left the layer on top of it.  The visible results define the different eras, not the exact number of years each era lasted.  God happens to call his periods of creation 'Days,' a word that sometimes has the meaning of 'Era' in the Bible.  So let him do so and don't try to force him into a calendar week or a few thousand years, when he's given us the scientific insights to understand something of how he did his work!
"Take the first day of Creation in Genesis 1:3 to 1:5.  God said, 'let there be light,' and made day and night.  We know that the Big Bang happened about 14 billion years ago.  Visible light appeared some 400 million years later.  Sun, earth and moon were completed about 4.5 billion years ago.  So we can say with some certainty that the first day of Creation, during which light, day, and night were created, lasted about 9.5 billion years.
Sarah broke in with more of the creation story.  "Yet sun, moon, and stars didn't come about until the fourth day, after dry land and vegetation."
"Taken literally, that can't be brought to agreement with science.  But there could be something to it anyway.  We know that the sun was there when the earth was made, because, according to Genesis  1:5, by the end of the first day of Creation, there was night and day.  The moon must also have been there creating tides: without tides, life could not have moved onto dry land.  So maybe, for a beginning, it was always overcast?  Had there been an observer there to wonder about night and day, without clear skies that observer couldn't have known about sun, moon and stars. In the same way, the creation of fish and birds before land animals and humans also makes sense.  Life began in the seas, and birds are a late form of dinosaurs, so they predate modern land animals.
"Astronomy, geology, and archaeology are part of God's revelation to us of how he went about creating us and our world.  The ancient Israelites had no idea of these sciences, but, still, Genesis had to be understandable to them.  What you have in Genesis 1 is a reasonably accurate abstract of the true story.  If you still insist on reading it literally, then you've absorbed none of the progress humanity has made during the past three thousand years.
"What Cliff was telling us is that no one has the right to let past or present human understanding of singular Bible passages dictate limitations on God's actions.  If God has chosen to leave us evidence of the way he works, like when he showed Galileo that Earth is a planet, then it's time to use our God-given intellects rather than our fear of having our horizons widened."
"So then you're saying that evolutionists are more right than creationists, aren't you?" I asked.
"I'm saying that the observations evolutionists draw on are accurate, as far as they are valid research results, accepted by the scientific community.  It's their conclusions that are totally and tragically wrong.  They pretend to be intellectuals; nevertheless, they fail the most basic test of objectivity by disguising a subjective premise, that of the nonexistence of God, as a conclusion, and they perform the ultimate act of mental acrobatics by simply ignoring the laws of probability."
By now we had arrived at the farm, and Sarah set about preparing a real cup of tea—with no tea bags in it—while John started building a fire in the fireplace.  My head was spinning with all these thoughts, and my hosts knew that there were a couple of hours still to go of that evening.

     29.  Unidentified Flying Object

When we were comfortably seated in front of the fire, I began scratching my head, trying to draw some conclusion that would have brought the discussion a step forward.  But Sarah was quicker.
"I can see what Cliff meant when he said he'd be rocking the boat," she said.  "It's been rather simple so far: either you believed in God or you believed in evolution.  Cliff says we can safely accept both.  Now what?"
"Good question," John said.  "It hits the nail on the head.  Hardly anyone realizes that evolutionists haven't at all proved that God doesn't exist.  That concept is simply scientific fraud, a parasite on legitimate research.  Not even Charles Darwin made such a claim, but rather saw God creating life through the laws of nature.  But just as with political propaganda, it's been repeated so often that, to most people, it has become a fact.  And the faith of many Christians is so fragile that they panic at the thought of accepting the scientific findings evolutionists have used to fabricate their so called proof.
"This crisis of confidence among Christians is the result of naively swallowing the opposition's argument to the effect that if something evolved slowly, then God can't have made it.  However, some of our greatest scientists, including some Nobel Prize winners, have pointed out that there's no other valid explanation for the world than that it was created by God.  And that should be plenty of reassurance for those in doubt: there's nothing out there that isn't God's work.  Even if something took ten billion years to complete, it still didn't come about by itself; it just happened to please God to make it that way.  A definite, creative act of God doesn't have to produce an instant result like a magician's trick.  That perception is just something we've blindly taken over from our superstitious ancestors.  Who are we to dictate how God is allowed to work?
"When evolutionists run up against the problem that spontaneous formation of ever higher forms of life goes against the laws of probability and thermodynamics, they habitually resort to conjuring up a benevolent tendency in the background that compensates for their trouble with such laws.  They can't say that it's a Creator they're missing, so they capitalize Evolution or Nature to give an impression of divinity.  It would seem that the faith of the typical Christian is so feeble that we think giving up the traditional calendar week of creation means admitting that Nature and Evolution are stronger than God.  Well, the comforting fact is that God made everything in this world.  Without God, there would be no universe, no evolution, and no evolutionists.  Nature is a creative and controlling force in the universe only because God made her that way; she didn't invent herself."
"Can we talk about the laws you just mentioned?" I asked.  "How does probability come into this?"
"If you want to believe that there's no Creator," John replied, "you'll have to assume that the universe has always been here, which goes against scientific findings.  Without a Creator, the probability for it coming about is zero.  Science tells us that the sum of matter and energy is constant, so neither can just pop up out of nothing.  If you want to make new energy—as opposed to using solar energy either directly or stored in fuels, wind, waterfalls, and so on—you have to use up matter by way of a nuclear reaction.  Adding new matter to the universe is possible only by consuming existing energy.  Therefore, the Big Bang—the sudden appearance, out of nothing, of all the energy needed to make the entire universe—can't have been anything other than a creative act of God.  Evolutionists simply choose to ignore or brush off this basic scientific truth."
"Stephen Hawking said that stars and galaxies can't come out of nothing, but the whole universe, according to his physics, can," I noted.
"And so no God was needed, he thought.  Yet what he didn't say was why we and the universe should be here.  Why should Evolution have made a race of sentient, moral beings as the end product of 14 billion years of chance happenings—assuming it were possible?  Without a reason it's no more probable to occur than without a Creator.
"The second law of thermodynamics tells us that energy always seeks to return to its least useful form, and, as a corollary, that everything, if left alone, tends to return to a state of the least possible organization.  The heat from the fireplace dissipates and becomes part of the local microclimate.  The steam from the kettle condenses on the windows and wafts out the door.  Your car will rust and fall apart if you don't maintain it.  So when we observe life defying death and decay, and evolving toward greater perfection, we know there's a higher force at work than mere physics.
"When any life form dies, the same chemistry that kept it alive and sprouting or bouncing about, sets to work to return it to the earth.  Nothing needs to be added or removed: all that happens is that life departs.  We can explain all the actions of DNA and hormones and enzymes and electrochemical nerve impulses and their roles in supporting living organisms, but our sciences can't explain life."
"I hear there's a school of scientists that has created nucleic acid precursors starting with just hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulphide, and ultraviolet light," I said.  "Someone else found four small peptides that could form spontaneously, from which all existing proteins could be built.  That would suggest that the origin of life on Earth could have been the result of the right chemicals forming sometime during the comet impacts of hundreds of millions of years.  There's some significant probability for that to happen, isn't there?"
"That's precisely what I've been talking about," John said.  "We can make guesses at the processes God used.  But when you choose to look at just those processes and quietly assume that the universe and the right atmospheric chemistry just happened to be there, needing no explanation, you're insulting the intelligence of your audience.  It's just as silly to say that life came to earth on board comets.  Then where was it made?  The probability for anything at all existing without a Creator remains zero.
"The interesting thing here is that evolutionism fulfills all the criteria of a religion.  It has its own prophet, Charles Darwin; its own holy book, The Origin of Species; its own creed—there must be no God, so we'll conveniently forget that Darwin called the sum of the animal and vegetable kingdoms 'Creation'—and its own man-made creative deity, Evolution (capitalized).  Evolutionism even has its own scientist-priests whose more or less lucrative task it is to assure believers that nothing more than blind chance is needed to explain the universe and everything in it."
"The creationists, now," I said.  "They'll have all this popping into existence as we see it today, within six revolutions of the earth."
"And they hire all these quacks to refute every scientific finding that shows how it was actually done," John added.  "Their big thing, explaining everything from dinosaur bones to ancient geological formations, is the Flood, covering the whole earth.  The poor dinosaurs all missed the boat when Noah closed the gates.  They cater to people who can't handle any challenges to their traditional view of the world."
"They haven't taken the plane from Sydney to Melbourne," I mused.  "It took more than forty days of rain to carve that landscape out of the bedrock…"
John continued.
"You may wonder why this is so important to them.  It's all to do with identity.  Our sense of identity depends, among other things, on protecting our convictions, and in a changing world, we'll pay good money to those who have the ability to reassure us emotionally and shield us from what others consider facts.  The ignorant, the quacks, and the purveyors of fundamentalist nonsense form a thriving economy of their own, and everybody's vested interest in its product—protection from the need to think—and in the revenue it generates, gives it some status and makes it self-perpetuating."
"Explain that reference you made to identity, John," Sarah said.
John obliged.  "Our identity is the central and most important part of our psyche: we can handle most other losses and privations and retain or regain some measure of composure, but not the loss of our identity.  Amnesia causes such trauma in part because the sufferer doesn't know who he or she is.  Old people suffering from dementia go through a distressing process of losing the sense of identity they've built up during their lives, and often become very depressed.
"There are ways we can lose our identity while having all our mental faculties intact.  Take the people in the witness protection program: you can't just erase their old identities; you have to give them new ones.  Migrants stay together in ghettos, neighborhoods, or professions where they can safeguard their traditions, language, and other facets of their common identity.  Only their children eventually make the transition to the culture and language of the host country.  This brings us to the importance of the in-group for our sense of identity.
"Humans are herd animals.  Most of us can conceive of and define our identity only in terms of the groups we belong to: gender, nationality, language, profession, religion, race, rank, title, service club, football team allegiance, and so on.  Exclude us from the community—point the bone at us—and we tend to lie down and die.  Preserving our sense of identity as members of our in-group can therefore be a matter of life and death.  This is why our leaders have such power over us, and why peer pressure is the most compelling way of influencing our decision-making."
"Emy, my friend that I mentioned earlier," I interjected, "once said that any religion that has the power, by excommunicating you, to cut you off from your friends and family—your in-group, that is—or to put you to death, is not of God.  Such organizations twist their ever so holy scriptures to suit their politics, and they use people's natural need for spiritual security to keep their members captive and to enrich their leaders."
"She may well be right," John answered.  "But the power of the in-group is an inescapable fact.  It follows that our world is neatly and permanently divided into 'us' and 'them.'  More specifically, 'we,' the members of the in-group, are always right and 'they,' the others, are always wrong.
 "An in-group is defined first by common rules, values, and behavioral patterns; only secondarily by skin color, language, creed, nationality, age, and so on.  An outsider who acts differently and has other values will be rejected by the members of the group.  This is part of human nature, and the logic behind it is the following: as long as you share my values and play by the same rules as I do, you'll make the same deductions as the members of my group from the cues available, and recognize my place in the group's pecking order.  You'll perceive my social position, however modest, and respect me for it the same way I value my place in the scheme of things.  On the other hand, if your background and your values are different, you may not appreciate my worth, my rank, my identity—and so I fear you and distrust you, and my children aren't allowed to play with your children.
"Now, suppose that 'we,' the members of the local in-group, happen to hold some really tenuous beliefs, maintained since generations by conservative leaders who see their market segment as consisting of people who reject all change and progress.  We are the laughing stock of the world.  Some of us may be wondering what's going on and looking into alternatives.  We are threatened as a functioning in-group.
"Is this a tolerable situation?  No.  We will look to our leaders for reassurance that we're still in the right.  The leaders will gladly provide that service, because their livelihoods depend on the viability of our group and its idiosyncrasies.  The methods invariably employed for this are disparaging and attacking reason as something godless and dangerous, substituting it with blind faith in the hypocritical and conniving (or inept) leadership, and labeling all questioning as treason and all doubt as mortal sin.  Man's capacity for self-deception is practically infinite, and its foremost driving force, apart from wishful thinking, is the desire to conform.
"Now, we don't want to oversimplify an important concept like identity.  You must understand that what people do is just as crucial to their identity as what they are and what they think.  That's why we won't change our habits even if our very lives depend on it.  Most people who learn that their diet is unhealthy aren't prepared to change the way they eat.  Informed only by custom or its modern substitute, advertising, they think they have no choice, and unwittingly elect illness and untimely death over breaking with the culinary pattern of their ethnic group or social class.  Only by offering them membership in an alternative group, such as an imaginary club of clients of the weight loss industry, can you persuade a small proportion of those who really need it to improve their lifestyles.  This has nothing to do with fat addiction or unwillingness to cut down on the salt: most of us simply can't bring ourselves to let go of even the slightest facet of the rituals and behaviors that help define our identity as members of our in-group."
"Expecting people to change their habits is like pulling teeth," I concurred.  "You're saying that our established habits and beliefs are part of our identities.  That would be the reason why becoming a Christian is so traumatic that we have to be promised a supernatural regeneration to find the courage to take that step."
"That's true," John confirmed.  "It's a step into the unknown.  We have to be trusting like children—born again—and break with our old in-group, which, in Jesus' days, simply was our extended family or clan.  The relatives of someone who may have considered following Jesus when he first taught the new faith, by definition, weren't Christians.
"Everybody's in-group was his or her clan.  There were no other in-groups available then, as everyone worked at home and was held in a viselike grip by the clan allegiance required of them, and as no groups could form over large distances for want of communications.  The only exception would have been the Roman army: its soldiers had already changed their allegiance away from their civilian roots.  In the same way, the new Christians had to disavow the authority of their clans and form a new in-group of their own."
"Is this the meaning of 'hating your father and mother' and all that?" Sarah inquired.
"Yes," John replied.  "That's a Bible passage that has been misunderstood and abused more than most.  Every cult that needs young converts to solicit money for its leaders draws on that passage.  It should be understood in its linguistic and cultural context: you change your in-group and get a new identity; that is, you become a new person.  You don't get a license to break the fourth commandment or start beating your wife and children."

The warmth of the fire really made itself felt by now, and we sipped our tea in silence for a moment.  The clock on the mantelpiece showed that it was past ten, but I still wanted to know more.
"John," I said, "I bet you can explain something that's always puzzled me.  Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel.  Cain killed Abel, was banished, and went off and married.  Only afterwards did Eve bear Seth and an unspecified number of sons and daughters.  So where did Mrs. Cain come from?"
"We're beginning to split hairs now," John said, "because that account in Genesis doesn't spell out in which order all this happened.  Either you'll have to assume that Cain didn't marry until one of his sisters was old enough, or else you can draw on Cliff's theory that Adam was taken from an existing tribe of prehistoric humans, as a perfect example of the species, fit to be given an immortal soul.  Eve wasn't conceived the regular way—this we know for sure.  Genesis tells us that God cloned her from Adam's rib.  She might still have had a surrogate mother—if we can clone embryos and implant them, we can be sure God can, too.  Adam had the time to wait: he lived for 930 years, and was 130 by the time Seth was born.
"But after they were barred from Eden, they would have returned to Adam's tribe, where their children would have had no trouble finding mates.  Remember that God marked Cain so people wouldn't kill him on sight as a murderer.  This shows that there were others around, and that Cain knew their law.  Also, Cain went to a country that had a name, Nod, where he built a city: you need people for that.
"Adam and Eve had nearly been made immortal, and the first few generations of patriarchs, and, I assume, their sisters, as well, had life spans of around nine hundred years.  They had the time to produce many times more children than the old kind of people who had a life expectancy of twenty-five to forty years, at the most—the men, most likely, with several wives at a time.  We can safely assume that the descendants of Adam, with their free will, also had a superior ability of organization, as well as any amount of ambition.  In view of all this, they would soon have dominated the region where they lived."
"Could there still be untouched pockets of the original humans somewhere in the world?" I asked, thinking of the small bands of Stone Age people that were still found in the Amazon jungle as late as early this century.
"Why not," John answered.  "Australian Aborigines have been in that country for 65,000 years, which is more than the most generous estimate of the time since Adam.  They have their own legends about surviving a great flood by going up into the mountains.  Creationists say the Biblical Flood killed all humans, but the Genesis story of the Flood deals only with the nations of the Middle East.  It's rather silly to think that a stone-age chronicler living perhaps 7,000 years ago could have known that the world extended beyond the area he knew about and whose tribes he could list, and that people lived on other continents, untouched by the disasters of his own.  Think about it: as recently as 600 years ago, the expression 'the whole world' included neither America nor Australia."
I took out my smartphone, checked a few figures on the Internet, and made some calculations.  "The amount of water we have on Earth now is about 302 million cubic miles, 98 per cent of it in the oceans.  Raising the sea level by 13,000 feet—the typical elevation where Noah's Ark tends to be found on Mt. Ararat—would require an additional 490 million cubic miles, or 1.6 times the current amount of water.  To raise the sea from its current level to the top of Mt. Everest and covering all dry land, the amount of additional water needed would be 1,083 million cubic miles, or 3.6 times the current amount of water.
"The extra water could have been delivered from outer space by comets, although they would have obliterated all life on Earth in the process.  However, the only way to send it back would have been by splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen through electrolysis or catalysis.  Then, over a long period of time—millions of years, not 150 days—the hydrogen could have gone back to space, while the heavier oxygen would have stayed and raised the proportion of that gas in the atmosphere to a point where all organic matter would have self-combusted."
John was pleased with this reasoning.  "Myself, I prefer to limit Noah's flood to the Neolithic settlements on the Black Sea shore that were inundated around 5,600 BC when the Mediterranean broke through the Bosporus Strait and suddenly raised the surface of that former lake by about 500 feet.  Like Cliff said, God at the time was disgusted with the wickedness of Adam's and Eve's descendants.  The people on the south shore of the Black Sea at the time were early farmers and may well have been identical with that progeny.  Anyway, if the Flood was world-wide, how did the armadillo and the kangaroo get to the Ark and back?"
"That makes sense," I concluded.  "It seems like a bit of a let-down, though."
"Not as far as Noah is concerned," John countered.  "He performed a monumental work of faith, building a seagoing ship with a displacement of at least 20,000 tons using stone-age tools.  He spent decades of his life doing this while others scoffed at him.  Not only did he save himself and his family when the flood came, he also did a splendid conservation job.  No wonder he's counted among the patriarchs.
 "Anyway, we aren't here to disparage Noah or his ark.  We're poking holes in one of the deceptions used by Creationist leaders to keep their followers in medieval ignorance and safeguard their cash flows."
"Those leaders say that you can't be saved unless you believe that all 66 books of the Bible are literally true and contain God's entire revelation to mankind," I added.
John knew what I was talking about.  "The Law was God's full and sufficient revelation for Bronze Age people: it contains all they could understand and relate to.  The same applies to the Prophets and Iron Age people, and to Writings and the New Testament and the nations of antiquity, respectively.  But that doesn't mean that we with our enormously increased insights shouldn't be prepared and allowed to place the stories in their context and focus on God's intent and message rather than feign a blind faith in the superiority of Bronze Age understanding over modern science."

"Now, if God is so good and perfect," I inquired, "why does he allow such bad things to happen to people?"
"Well, which do we want," Sarah retorted, "God or a babysitter?  Most of the things you're talking about are caused by people, the rest by our natural environment or our own poor judgment.  No matter how advanced our technology, we're here on Nature's terms.  As to the rest, why do we blame God for what people do?  He gave us a free will, and we're quite happy to have it and use it.  Is God then supposed to tamper with everybody else's free will in order to protect us?  Tyrants do that, not God.  Humanity's relationship with God is like a marriage where one spouse makes all the decisions and the other gets all the blame.  And yet he continues to love us and giving us second chances.  It really isn't too much to ask that we should give God a bit of praise and thanks now and then.
 "God didn't design this world in such a way that he'd have to run it himself.  He doesn't.  He turned that job over to us: humans run the world.  That's why it's being done in such an awful manner.  But the bright side of it is that we're also masters of our own destinies.  When God does interfere in our lives, it's in response to prayer, usually lots of it.  You need to be very specific as to what it is you want, and you need to have an unshakable faith in God's ability to do what you need done.  He often works through apparent coincidences and fortuitous meetings between people: always leave the timing to him.  And when it turns out that you aren't getting what you want, realize that God knows the future, and is the better judge of what's good for you in the long run.
"Everyone doesn't necessarily have an idyllic life on Earth, and it isn't necessarily such a good thing when it does happen.  God permits hardship in order to enable us to mature: we're born with personality traits, but character comes about only as a result of living through adversity.  He's great enough to be able to use both chance happenings and willful human acts to further his purposes concerning us.  Your task is to match some of that greatness by profiting from your experiences without building up cynicism and resentment that would ruin both your disposition and your prospects for an eternal life.
"Some lives are short, some are longer.  Each has the potential to shape a character.  What would be the purpose of a coddled life without adversity?  A life without risks and wants is for neutered house cats, not for people being prepared for God's kingdom.
"Think of the myriad bugs and micro-organisms for which we, as newcomers to the biosphere, are potential food and habitat.  Think of the radiation and the toxins that constantly damage our DNA.  It's incredible that, living in an environment that's so bent on our destruction, we have the health and lifespan that, on average, we do have.  As products of evolution, our defenses can only be as good as required to maintain our species.  In this world, our immune systems will never be perfect.  Yet we rail at God for every genetic mishap and for every misfortune poverty generates through lack of knowledge and medical care.  Alleviating poverty is our responsibility, not God's.  If nature has her way with some of us and it could have been prevented, we need to improve the way we look after those in need, not blame God for permitting survival of the fittest as a principle of nature.
"We mourn our deceased friends and relatives and complain about the unfairness of our loss because we can only think of ourselves, our grief, and the here and now.  But the loved ones we have lost are normally safe with God and on their way to much greater things than we have here.  If not, they weren't very lovable to begin with.
"Don't forget what the Bible says: God can use everything for the good of those who love him.
"Never ever think of yourself as a victim, Gregory!  It's a debilitating attitude that clouds your judgment and could, in the extreme, get you killed.  You have no right to self-pity.  If you ever feel that you do, think of the movie The Passion of the Christ."
"Thanks, Sarah," I said sincerely.  "I'll remember that.  But if I may continue for a while, what did Cliff mean with his first statements about the world being a stage and having only three dimensions?  I got the feeling that he put the entire known universe in a rather insignificant light.  How many dimensions are there in all?"
"Sarah just told you that we're here to mature," John explained.  "We come from somewhere, 'upstairs,' as Adrian said, when we're born, and we go somewhere when we die.  So there must be other realms than this three-dimensional world we can perceive.  St. Paul, in Ephesians 3:18, talks about his prayer that we'll all come to 'comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth,' so it seems that we should count on four dimensions, at least.  But if there are more than four, we really don't have to worry about them; the difficult thing is to imagine anything at all beyond the three dimensions we know."
I pulled out my New Testament from Henry Allen, and found a slightly different version of what John had cited.  It talked about all those concepts as dimensions of Christ's love.
"What I just quoted is the English rendition of the original text," John said.  "Its obvious, literal meaning was too far-fetched for most Bible translators.  They needed an object for the dimensions, so, as a rule, they opted out and applied them to the next verse.  If you want to study the Bible, always use several different translations, including at least one literal translation.  Many translators have recorded not only the limitations of their imagination and understanding, but also their political and sectarian agendas.
 "The idea Cliff expressed so briefly, is that we've been given physical requirements, along with many limitations that don't exist in the spiritual world, so we'll be forced to make difficult decisions and get a chance to test our love for each other by caring for those in need.
"In that sense, this world is a stage: most of what we do here wouldn't be necessary in the larger realm.  The environment, its physical laws, and the existence of time provide a script for our lives, steering us in certain mandatory directions.  However, the important difference between our lives and a play as we know it is that we can exercise our free will and make choices."
"Mathematically, I know how to deal with any number of dimensions," I told John.  "But it seems really hard to try to visualize what it means that there could be more than three in real life."
John had been through this before.
"We live in three dimensions, right?  That's one more than two dimensions.  Use analogy, my friend.  If you lived in a two-dimensional plane, you could go in all directions in the plane, but you couldn't go outside it.  You couldn't see or imagine three-dimensional space or any other planes than your own, because you'd be built flat, with no eyes on the sides facing away from your own plane.  The third dimension, now, is at right angles with the two you can grasp, but you can't point that way, because no matter how you turn, your arms move only in your own plane.
"If you could move in the third dimension, you'd find that it's much like the first two: you could measure the distance you had gone, you might encounter other two-dimensional planes with interesting new worlds in them, inhabited by other kinds of two-dimensional beings, and you could return and find your way back to where you had come from.  Perhaps it would be a little too much to handle, but for the adventurous, quite exciting.
"We who live in three dimensions—in a space rather than a plane—have exactly the same limitations when it comes to the fourth dimension.  It's got to be perpendicular to the space we live in, with other spaces and, perhaps, other worlds in it.  We can't point in the direction of that fourth dimension, because no matter how we turn, our arms move only in the three dimensions we know.  But seen from that elusive perspective, we'd be open to inspection right into the marrow of our bones, just as you, from outside a plane, could see the innards of the two-dimensional beings that populated it."
It was a good analogy.  Still, I was missing a real gut feeling of what it would be like.  Somehow or other, leaving this space would have to be similar to the idea of rising above a familiar plane, staying in the same spot, in a manner of speaking, but still being removed from it.  You'd be so much removed, in fact, that there'd be no communication with those left behind, even though the distance, measured in the new direction, wouldn't need to be very great.
So questioned, John came up with yet another analogy.
"Imagine you're five years old.  You're about three foot four, still a bit timid but ready to explore the world as far as you're allowed to go.  So one evening, when your mom turns her back, you come upon this roll of corrugated cardboard standing on its end.  The roll is four feet wide, or, rather, high: well above your head.  What do you do?  Of course, you find the end of the cardboard and look between the layers.
"Then you start walking into the roll.  Never mind that it was neat and tightly rolled when you found it, and that you'll leave it unraveled and wobbly.  You don't know that, and so you walk on.  And on and on and on.  Within a few minutes, you may have walked five yards, then ten, then fifteen.  Eventually, you have to stop, when the stuff won't give any longer.  Now where are you?"
"In the same spot, but 15 yards removed from the rest of the world!"  I exclaimed, realizing what John was after.  "I've walked a certain distance, I can't be seen, and I have to walk all the way back to get out again.  So I'm really not in this space anymore, except that Mom can see me, if she looks down the top of the roll."
"God couldn't be everywhere, so he made mothers," John remarked.  "I'm told that's an old Arab saying.  The same way, I imagine, God looks on us, seeing every cell in our bodies, from the fourth dimension that we can't perceive.  Now, I like this analogy: I used to walk into rolls of corrugated cardboard as a child, and, I'll tell you, it was quite scary.  The further you go, the dimmer the light gets; sounds from outside become muffled, and you know perfectly well that there's no panicking in there, because you have to get out the way you went in, and in an orderly manner.  If you knock the roll over and crawl out the top, you're bound to flatten and break the material, and then Mom will get you alright."
"Great," I said.  "Now for the last of these mysteries: time.  How can time be an option?  It seems like the most inflexible limitation we have."
As I had expected, John had an answer ready for this question, too.
"All this reasoning about physical space and dimensions agrees well with simple mathematics.  Time, however, is different.  It takes Einstein's general theory of relativity to describe spacetime mathematically.  If we didn't have time, it wouldn't be easy to think it up theoretically.  To me, it's counterintuitive that time must go in just one direction.  It leads me to think that time is a tailor-made property of this three-dimensional space where we live.
 "Time is a necessary convenience for life in three dimensions.  Without it, you could never walk through a door—it's possible only because the door can be open at certain times.  God has made time to enable us to mature; it is, hence, the most precious resource he has given us.  Those who have had near-death experiences tell us that the first question we're asked after we die is how we've used our time here.  God remains outside of time and sees everything that goes on like you see traffic on a one-way street from a helicopter: you can pretty well predict what lies ahead for somebody who won't know until they get there.  So if God wants to use an evolutionary process that takes a billion years, he just sets it going and comes back later to use the results—he doesn't have to sit around and wait."

Soon I thanked my hosts and said good night.  John wouldn't have me walk the quarter mile to my shack, but came along and started up his car.  Halfway to the shack the road turned to the right, and just as we approached the bend, the car's engine suddenly died, while ahead, beyond a shrub-clad ridge, I saw a bluish light approaching.
There were no roads or buildings there, and I gasped, "What's that?"
"A UFO," John said.  "They come here sometimes."
"Do you mean you've seen them before?  What are they?"
I was petrified, but John's calmness gave me a lot of comfort.  So far, nothing worse had befallen us than the fact that the car had no life whatsoever.
"I reckon their crews are custodians of the earth," John said.  "Time travelers, who stop here in our age now and then, perhaps for a breath of fresh air.  They're the ones who watch the long, slow processes of development and regeneration here on Earth, by zipping from one eon to another.  I got taken along once by accident."
I thought I had heard a lot about John, but this sounded just incredible.
"You must be joking!  Taken along where?"
"To another era on Earth.  It could have been right here, but it was a different time alright.  I came driving one night along this same road, with the dog in the car, a little earlier in the evening.  The UFO appeared in just the same spot as now: they have their regular places they come back to.  I went out to investigate why the car had stopped, and the dog came with me.  He was so scared he stayed by the car, while I went ahead to the bend in the road.  I felt dizzy, and as the UFO came closer and landed next to me, I found I was in a different place altogether.  It was a wasteland with no life anywhere.  There was a little light, but the sky was practically black.  A couple of men came out of the UFO and looked very mystified and concerned to see me.  'You don't belong here,' one of them said.  'How did you manage to tag on?'
"I didn't know, and I didn't seem to have the power to answer, either.  They returned to their craft and a little later I found myself back by the car, with no more signs of the UFO.  The dog was lying where I'd left him, so weak that I had to lift him into the car.  He recovered alright by morning, however.  The car lights, which had gone out when the car had died on me, were on again, and when I tried to start the car, it worked just as before.  I haven't noticed any side effects from that adventure, but I decided then not to leave the car if ever I saw one of them again."
The light in front of us now became brighter, and for a moment I saw a round object with openings along the edge and underneath, from which the light emanated.  Then the UFO took off, abruptly, to the left, and disappeared behind the trees.  The car lights came on again and, like John had said, the car started up without trouble.
"Are you too scared now to sleep alone out there?" John asked me.  "Just let me know how you feel, and we'll put you up in Bruce's room."
Strange enough, I wasn't.
"Please drive on," I said.  "Tell me, how do you know you weren't taken to the moon or some other part of space?"
John laughed.  "I can tell you it wasn't the moon, because I was able to breathe, and I felt just as heavy as usual.  If they managed, unwittingly, to carry me through space, in no time, outside the craft, without me exploding on the way, to another planet where I was able to breathe the air, well, then they're to be congratulated.  I've just guessed at the simplest explanation: that I didn't go anywhere geographically speaking, but was ported through time to some era, perhaps in the future, during which the earth is being regenerated following a major catastrophe.  With no human life around, these people look after it and regulate whatever processes are at work, so that millions or billions of years later, as we reckon, another world, full of life, is again at God's disposal for whatever purposes he has."
"Were those men small and green with those beady eyes, then?" I asked, thinking of all the science fiction stuff I had absorbed during my teens.
"No," John answered, "they looked like regular people, with tight-fitting clothes and some form of helmets on their heads.  Working gear for a tough environment, I'd say.  Don't believe any of that occult stuff you read about UFOs.  Somebody is out to make money, that's all.  As I see it, there's nothing mystical at work here.  God has said he'll finish off this present world with fire, and then he'll make everything new.  I believe I visited that time of regeneration.  It could be a very long time, counted in years, while new life is created.  But God's people will be taken past that time, via Heaven, and put back into the new world, without experiencing any more delay than what it takes to exchange formalities up there."
"What if they hadn't noticed you and had gone off to some other eon?" I asked, aware that John had been through something quite out of the ordinary.
"Well, I had no way of calling for help, so in that case, I suppose I'd soon have perished.  Fortunately for me, they had some reason to leave their vehicle.  I'd have had to blame my own rashness, of course, going toward the thing, knowing full well that I had no business around it.  But I don't regret having gained the understanding I now have concerning UFOs."
By the time I got back to my quarters, it was midnight, and I should have been scared to death.  But I felt outright elated and assured John that I'd be OK.  If I needed any support, there was always the smartphone.  I had little trouble going to sleep and dreamed about weird and wonderful things.


"What is it with America," I continued, "this thing that even churches have to be so commercial?  I just sat through a service at the Consumer Church of Instant Gratification, which was a farce, of course, but even serious churches here use marketing methods that are identical to those of business."
The minister, who had introduced himself as Reverend Cooper, had a very friendly and understanding attitude.
"You've noticed that when the church stoops down to compete with popular entertainment on entertainment's terms, the message of faith goes out the window, right?  Not many do.  A lot of churches here think of themselves primarily as entertainers, and spend their time planning the music and the sing-alongs when they should be thinking of their sermons.  Then there are churches that have become nothing more than reliquaries of empty ritual and institutionalized intolerance.  Sometimes I wonder if the clergy of such churches even remember what brought them there in the first place: the Gospel.
 "I think the root of the matter you're talking about can be traced back to the very beginnings of this country.  The pioneers that founded America, just like those who came after them, left their old countries behind because they wanted freedom and opportunities.  After the Revolution, they outlawed all the things that had denied them those precious things in Europe: royalty, nobility, and the liaison between church and state that had allowed European churches to grow rich and despotic.  They created a power vacuum, which was filled by the smart and the ambitious, taking the place of those with inherited wealth and authority in the old countries.  This is why business became so powerful here: it was handed a position of strength that its counterpart in most of the rest of the world never had.  It's also the reason America became so efficient: her upstart ruling class made its living from the dynamism of business, not from the ownership of tenant land, which makes you resist all change.
"Since the early Catholic Church managed to destroy the theaters of antiquity, the churches had been Western society's only channels for mass propaganda, and, as such, they habitually allied themselves with those in power.  Heralds and town criers could distribute announcements, but only the churches had the means to influence the value system of the public.  These means they would put at the disposal of a patron, but only at a price.  The Catholic Church had worldwide power of her own and could negotiate with rulers as an equal, while Protestant and Orthodox churches normally became state churches.  Most other important world faiths are state religions, as well.  In America, the only available ally with comparable strength and a similar need to influence people's value systems was the business community.  The state was separated from the churches by law.  It's because of this orientation toward business among their churches that many Americans don't know that there's a difference between evangelization and marketing or entertainment.
"This is why you find that most churches in America are clients of the business community, take an active part in pro-big business politics as the so called 'Christian' Right, and spend a good part of their time promising the faithful material wealth and nurturing the American Dream.  Denominations that reject such a client relationship are seen as weird: you have your Quakers, your Amish, and other quiet churches that never are in the headlines, and exist mainly outside middle-class suburbia."
Ah, yes, the American Dream: the notion that anybody, given luck and perseverance, can become rich, famous and powerful—or at least have a home and a mortgage—and therefore legislation and taxation have to be favorable to big business.  After all, it could be me...  In reality, maybe one in a million ever strikes it rich, but to keep the door open, the public puts itself at the disposal of business on business's terms.
I moved over to Rev. Cooper's table.
"Now, many Americans are churchgoers, and yet they're marked, and they're shopping like there's no tomorrow.  I can see why few Europeans worry about being marked: they don't go to church.  But here a lot of people still do.  How come they haven't been warned?"
"First of all, Catholics have never heard about such a mark, and aren't told that the end times may be near.  Less so now than earlier, since the Vatican became part of the European Commission.  Greek Orthodox Christians don't even have the Book of Revelation in their Bibles.  And among Jews, the only authorities paying any attention to these things are the Messianic ones, and other Jews consider them Christians and don't listen to them.  Only Muslims here are, for the most part, aware of what's going on.
"The Messianic Jews have mounted an admirable effort lately: like the Mormons, they have started sending out their young men as missionaries to other countries, including Israel.  Last I checked they had some 144,000 of them.  With the payment system reform, life has become very hard for them: they refuse to be marked and their folks have problems sending them money to live on.  Yet they aren't giving up.
"To understand the ignorance of Protestants, we should remember that some two centuries ago, Miller and Darby invented the idea of a pretribulation rapture.  Once launched, the concept turned out to have a special attraction for many Americans who have come to think that they ought to be exempt from all hardship.  ('You can't do this to me: I'm an American!')  Tribulation is for all those other people overseas, who live among war and poverty.
 "A pretribulation rapture is a best-case scenario built on very shaky ground.  'Beware of best-case scenarios!' I tell my congregation—like, no doubt, you advise your contingency planning constituents."
"Amen!" I chimed in.  This was a man of my mettle.
"Protestant fundamentalism in this country has degenerated into little more than legalism, bigotry, and right-wing political extremism.  Fundamentalist leaders and media permit no deviation from their central doctrine of a pretribulation Rapture.  So since fundamentalists haven't been raptured yet, the emperor, who builds his political support on everybody's fear of and hatred against everybody else, can't be the Beast, and his payment identifier can't be the Mark of the Beast.  The world view of fundamentalists is dominated by prejudice, and the emperor's computers are having a field day with them.  So fundamentalists are marked and support the emperor, and their leaders are making more money than ever by parroting him.  There'll be some very surprised people here a couple of years from now.
"A central issue in the right-wing brainwash distributed by the corporate sponsors of fundamentalism is climate change denial.  No laws or regulations may stand in the way of profit-making, and no concerns for the planet are allowed to interfere with the enrichment of the rich.  Conservative Christians swallow these principles hook, line, and sinker: any alternative, they're told, amounts to Communism.
"Those who read their Bibles, however, have reason to be wary of this propaganda.  Micah 7:13 predicts man-made environmental degradation: 'The earth will become desolate because of its inhabitants, as the result of their deeds.'  And Revelation 11:18 tells what will happen to those who cause and facilitate this degradation: 'The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small—and for destroying those who destroy the earth.'  The earth really matters to God: it's mentioned 575 times in the Bible."
"I had a colleague where I worked," I said, "who must have been a fundamentalist.  He sometimes got all worked up about how America was never going to be bombed because it was in the Bible.  Wonder how he explains the bomb in DC now..."
"That's fundamentalist thinking alright.  That belief is based on a version of the Bible called the Living Bible.  This is a paraphrase, not a translation, and it takes liberties with the text where it suited the author.  Ronald Reagan used it when campaigning for funding for his Star Wars program.  The passage he quoted is the same one your colleague thought so much of, Ezekiel 39:6.  In the doctored version, it says:

And I will rain down fire on Magog (Russia) and on all your allies who live safely on the coasts, and they shall know that I am the Lord.

"According to this view, during the catastrophes at the end of the age, America will be miraculously saved from destruction while Russia will get it with a vengeance.  But what does the Bible actually say?   The most accurate translation goes very much like this:

I will send fire on Magog and on those who dwell securely in the coastlands; and they shall know that I am the Lord.

"Dwelling securely means confidently, without care.  That's the attitude of many Americans to world conflict: it goes on somewhere else, it doesn't come to our part of the world.  The word "coastlands" is also translated as "the isles", meaning generally overseas territories.  The shore of Israel, as we know, faces the west.  So the very prophesy that spells out the fate of America along with that of Russia was, at the time of the big debate on the cost of the Star Wars program, used to convince Americans that with enough defense spending they'll be protected against this fearful day.  Hundreds of billions of dollars later, there's still no proof that the system will ever work, while the Warsaw Pact countries that were allies of Russia in the '80s are now NATO members and allies of America.  So much for the accuracy of the Living Bible's politically paraphrased prophesies."
"My friend Mikio in Tokyo said that great powers always have to have enemies," I reminisced.
"Our understanding of evil is incredibly subjective: we automatically assume that it's always done by others, that it's something unfair or immoral that offends, injures, or threatens us, and that we're always the good guys in the story.  This conception of evil is political, not based on Christianity.  It's a paramount tool of Conservative leaders looking to unite followers and politicize their faith into right-wing monomania.  There's a universal rule: if you want a population to do your bidding and pay you money, you'll have to show them an enemy, and that enemy is the external evil we're talking about.  The only difference between a political leader and a charismatic religious leader going for your pocketbook is that where the politician tries to turn you against minorities, foreigners, and terrorists, the preacher adds witches, demons, and homosexuals to the list.  But objectively speaking, any outside evil is irrelevant to you and me, because the only evil that matters is our own pride, greed, and selfishness.  They are the main things standing between us and God.
 "Time was when everybody knew that selfishness is bad for you.  But we're no longer raised that way: now our greed and covetousness are the very motors of the economy, and they are energetically nurtured by all the advertisement and entertainment that shape our culture and our outlook on life.  Our preachers should be screaming bloody murder about this, but instead, they worry about their budgets and meddle in politics.
"Also, you should realize that here in the States, so many people attend church because most of our churches are actually a form of social clubs.  Their religious teaching often has deteriorated into something rather bland that has been called Moralistic-Therapeutic Deism."
"Deism," I mused, "I can't think of what that really means just now."
"One definition," Rev. Cooper replied, "is 'a belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe.'  This takes care of the impossibility of a universe existing without being created while giving you carte blanche to live your life as you see fit.
  "To attract members when the evangelistic fervor is gone, churches have to have all these lavish buildings and sports facilities, and all that, normally, has been financed by issuing bonds.  Five or ten years later, the bonds begin falling due, and suddenly the fundraising of the church has to become truly effective.  That's why you find them making members pledge themselves to firmly planned giving with computerized invoicing.  If church members couldn't use the payment system, the churches would go bankrupt and the preachers would be out of a job.  And remember, he that serves God for money, will serve the devil for better wages."
 "Those churches that are serious about it pull out the Old Testament and say they're due a tenth of your earnings," I continued his train of thought.
 "That's a great example of how you can prove just about anything by taking singular passages of Scripture out of their context.  Tithing came about because one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the Levites, was set aside to serve as priests.  They had to be supported by the other eleven tribes.  A twelfth part of their income would have made for equal distribution of wealth, but seeing that the Levites had to use very expensive garments for their work, a tenth was fairer.
"Now, since when do preachers and their families make up a tenth or even a twelfth of our current population?  A quarter of a percent of the working population are clergy.  Church buildings have to be paid for, of course, but when religious communities, some of which don't even have salaried priests, still demand a tenth, and often a tenth of your earnings before tax, you know it's business.  It would be just as right if Israel went out and killed every inhabitant of Palestine.  That's in the Bible, as well, but it, too, was a specific instruction for a once-off situation.
"I could go on.  St. Paul wrote that women weren't to teach or be heard in the congregation.  That was correct in the culture of the times, where the only women who ever spoke in public were pagan priestesses and prostitutes.  Christian women were not to behave like prostitutes or pagan priestesses.  Christians had to be model citizens if they wanted their churches to grow.  Moreover, a woman in those days couldn't obtain an education, no matter how smart she was.  A good woman had her prescribed place; by filling that role, she made her best contribution.  She let her father, brother, husband, or son do the teaching and make the decisions, because hers wouldn't have been respected anyway.  In return, she and the whole household, submitting in everything to its head, were saved with him.  In our society, every adult is qualified to make their own decisions, and also answers for his or her own deeds.  Women are free, educated, and capable of teaching.  What we're dealing with is just a bunch of feeble old men trying to preserve their privileges by quoting out of context."
"And wives were to submit to their husbands," I recalled.  "That seems pretty out of date, too."
"It was correct in the cultural context of the time," Rev. Cooper answered.  "The responsibility for the whole household lay squarely on the husband's shoulders, and assuming he did his best, he deserved support.  But this command is another one of those that have been taken out of context.  In Colossians 3, St. Paul gives four strongly interdependent commands concerning families: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.  Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.  
"The first pair of commands is meant to be inseparable, likewise the second pair.  Expecting women and children to obey and submit to a man that doesn't love them is an illusion: it'll only happen through terror.  Yet, for 2,000 years men have chosen to notice and enforce only the first and the third of these commands, while ignoring the second and the fourth.  Encouraged by their like-minded preachers, they have thought themselves Christians, while, in fact, they've simply been tyrants."
 "So, for the average churchgoer, what's the alternative?  What can you do if your preacher is more concerned with money and morality than with love and salvation?"
"There's a simple way to set things right," Rev. Cooper replied.  "Get together and pray for him.  Within six months, he'll either change or move.  It works; I've seen it happen."