The Betrayers

ethnic map of africa
I don’t know if Africans would vouch for this outsiders ethnic map of Africa (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division), but at the very least it shows the diversity of African culture. We may think of Africans as one people and one culture, but that is far from true.
Wikimedia Commons

One of the last books I read as a part of my book challenge between January and May was History the Betrayer by E.H. Dance. This fascinating book (published in Norwegian in 1964) was one of my grandfather’s, and my bookshelf recently became its new home. I was a little surprised at first to find this book in an old, conservative man’s collection because it is quite modern, but it also makes sense. He was very interested in history and he probably knew very well that history books, especially those he had to use as a teacher in a college prep high school, had a certain amount of prejudices and political propanda.

The historian E.H. Dance gave examples from several countries, but focused on history books used in German and Soviet schools. He also mentioned Britain, the USA and France, as well as asian criticism of how these Western countries have presented Asia. Dance claims that western historians have ignored Asia, except for Middle-East, and that still seems to be the case more than 50 years later. How much do we really know about Chinese history for example? If people know more than the communist history it’s probably because they decided to read it themselves, but we are not encouraged to look for this information.

This starts early. I remember a cartoon my daughter was watching when she was 4-5 years old, The Little Einsteins. These children travelled all over the world helping other children, and it seems to have been about teaching appreciation for other cultures. They presented art and music, but not necessarily relevant to the culture. In Dragon Kite they went to China and the music was by the Norwegian Edward Grieg and in A Tall Totem Tale they went looking for totem poles in Alaska. The music used in this episode was by Johan Sebastian Bach. In Rocket Safari they went to Africa supported by music by the Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Does this mean that these cultures haven’t produced any music it’s worth listening to? I told my wife once that Africa hasn’t contributed anything to our modern civilization. It might be implied, and not explicitly said, but that seems to be the message from a long education in the Western world. I don’t think anyone told me, but it was something I assumed because Africa was completely absent from the books.

Africa is a very complexed continent and the rest of the world has never really tried to understand Africans. When Europeans colonised Africa they described Africans as very primitive, yet these people had everything you expect to find in a very advanced society. They had religions that in some ways remind me of native Americans or aboriginals in Australia, but many Africans also believed in a main creator. The most typical about Africans is probably that they are very spiritual. Many believe that African religions are polytheistic, but that isn’t necessarily true. The concept of monotheism actually came from Africa (akhenaten). There are many interesting African creation myths, and although they have multiple gods, and may appear pagan to us, they resemble our own creation myth. Yes, I do believe most of Genesis is pure myth.

One of the most interesting things is that Africans didn’t just rely on an oral tradition. This video shows some of the work done to save the manuscripts from the world’s oldest university, which was in Timbuktu in Mali.

This is a part of the Africa I never heard about when I went to school. If you study African history you basically find that the Africans have a bad habit of not living up to your stereotypical expectations. It turns out we can’t even trust our own history. When I was growing up there was a song I heard a lot on the radio. It was a Norwegian version of Davy Crocket (written by Thomas Blackburn). One of the verses deals with Alamo:

He heard of Houston and Austin
So to the Texas plains he just had to go
Where freedom was fightin’ another foe
And they needed him at the Alamo.
Davy, Davy Crockett, the man who don’t know fear.

The truth was less glamorous, however. In the book Exodus from the Alamo, Dr Tucker claims that the myth was created because the Americans chose to disregard the Mexican version of the battle. That gives the phrase Remember the Alamo a new meaning. Read about it in Mail Online.

There are of course a lot of myhts in European history too. I am reading some books about racism now because I plan to write about it later, and one of them had some interesting information about enlightened Europeans. Some of the great thinkers from the Age of Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Kant, encouraged racism. These philosophers are often mentioned as rational thinkers that showed how much better we are without God. Is that so? Kant wrote for example about the strong smell from Africans that no amount of cleaning could remedy. So they seemed to have challenged the old, established mindset at the same time as they continued it. This was more actually because they also gave the rulers a justification for new prejudices based on science (I believe philosophy was almost regarded as a science then).

By the way, one thing everyone knows is true is that the vikings wore horned helmets and that they were so busy raping British women they hardly had time to fight. I already knew the helmet-story was nonsense, but it surprised even me when I read in Mail Online that the vikings didn’t leave their DNA on the islands.

That was new information, but it is also important to remember that what you read is not something unchangable. It’s not past events; it is a narration of past events. That reminds me of a painting by René Magritte. The Treachery of Images is a painting of a tobacco pipe with the text “this is not a pipe”. It was of course an image of a pipe, which isn’t the same. Images can be manipulated. Do you remember the iconic photo of the Soviet leader Nikita Krutsjov holding his shoe and banging it? This supposedly happened when he gave a speech at the UN in New York, but it never happened. We are still being manipulated

African kingdoms
African religions

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10 thoughts on “The Betrayers

  1. John,

    I once taught a young man who was from Armenia, who had lived and went to school in Germany for awhile. We were once discussing similar issues referenced in your post and he told me that in the German school that he attended that the textbooks simply omitted the entire period of the Third Reich and WWII. There wasn’t a revision or narration, but simply a huge, gaping omission. He said it was like WII had simply not occurred, and there was absolutely no acknowledgement of that period and no student even asked or commented as to why those years were missing. He described as a sort of collective amnesia.

    However, I don’t suppose that only the Germans indulge in such amnesia, though it seems in the U.S. ours is more of a selective memory, and a revised one at that.

    Two books that I read a few years ago, addressing such areas of collective amnesia or missing narratives are as follows:

    Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II ,i/>, by Douglas A. Blackmon

    To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans , by Robin D.G. Kelley and Earl Lewis

    Though it is not mentioned in either book, the Tulsa Massacre (1919?) comes to mind as another example of collective amnesia.

    1. There’s a lot of amnesia all over the world, and right now I am focused on tolerance. I feel like beating the crap out of most Norwegians, and some other governments, especially related to anti-semitism and islamophobia. In my next post I might also mention Europe’s and Norway’s involvement with “race hygiene.” The truth is that this wasn’t purely a nazi phenomenon.

  2. John,

    As I’ve been turning your words over, I’d tend to agree with your assertion that an official historical record may not necessarily be the one we should unquestioningly trust.

    Human beings are largely incapable of being truly objective and tend to color our accounts of “what really happened” with various shades of personal ignorance/prejudice or cultural bias. Not to mention the fact that there are those who will deliberately lie in order to confuse or convince onlookers.

    Those of us who come after the fact are charged with the sometimes unpleasant business of sorting truth from fiction and making amends where we can. But, before we draw our own conclusions we should be willing to at least hear the voices of those who tend to be shut out by the mainstream variation. Some people are willing, while others are not. And of course, not all researchers will come to the same conclusion as they piece the puzzle together.

    Of course, every culture has both bad aspects as well as good, so we shouldn’t blindly accept that everything that has been previously labeled as undesirable was done so mistakenly.
    However, it is a shame that the Imperialist western European mindset did not allow for the richness of African (and Native American) culture to move them to appreciate these people as fellow members of God’s creative genius.

    It is interesting to note that we often feel the damaging repercussions of past prejudices today, even though the European tribal peoples were once viewed as being the barbarians through the eyes of the conquering Roman Empire.
    How quickly we forget…

  3. Yes, I do believe most of Genesis is pure myth.

    This is an interesting statement.

    Perhaps it caught my attention because my working definition of “myth” involves the development of sensational (yet mostly untrue) stories around a kernel of truth (which may or may not be readily discerned by the reader).

    Some people have tried to insist that Genesis is a “history book” of sorts, while others try to use it a a science text. While the writings may touch on both scientific and historic topics, neither of these views is the primary focus.
    The Jewish scriptures are largely prophetic in nature, so the writers would have been inspired by God to record historical events, poetry and even the proverbs from God’s unimpeded perspective of His overall plan for His creation.

    At any rate, I can accept that Genesis is true to its original intent even though it is also largely symbolic and may not exactly match other historical records if taken entirely in a literal sense.

    I was wondering if you’d mind expanding on your remark a bit as it made me curious about your overall understanding of the purpose of Judeo-Christian scripture.

  4. That may have been a pointed formulation. I’ve met quite a few people over the years with different views about the inspiration, and I have even met some that believed every single word was as God wanted. If that was true the hateful nonsense Stephen Fry and other atheists preach would actually make sense. I think it was Winston Churchill that said that history is written by the victors, and I believe that applies to the Bible as well. We see some quite appalling behaviour, but it is presented as something positive because this is supposedly what God wanted. One of the things God ordered was genocide, if we are to believe that everything was a part of His plan. I’m not going into the sin and free will-debate now, but I wanted to point out that there are some problems connected to a belief that God approves everything Christians do today, and Jews did back then.

    Myth in the Bible doesn’t necessary mean that there’s no truth in it, but I believe a lot of it is stories used as a tool to convey truth. I believe God created the universe and us, but many seem to think that He wandered around for six days, and some believe this happened just 5000 years ago. So I think God is in control if we look at the main events, but I’d have to reconcider my membership in church if I have to accept that people just wrote down the Bible as God dictated. That would mean that I wouldn’t be allowed to make any decisions myself.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my request, John. I do believe I can see a little more clearly now what you are concerned about.

      I’m not going into the sin and free will-debate now, but I wanted to point out that there are some problems connected to a belief that God approves everything Christians do today, and Jews did back then.

      Well, the Bible itself does not indicate that God gives blanket approval to everything that a Christian or Jew does…even if they claim that He told them to do it. But, I do suspect that we may not always understand the purpose for certain things to be written as they were.

      Hopefully, you did not feel that my comment was intended to be combative. I’m pretty sure we would not completely agree with one another on this issue, but I mostly was just curious about the reasoning behind your words.

    2. Oops. I forgot to indicate that I was quoting you @
      I’m not going into the sin and free will-debate now…

      I apologize for any confusion it may have caused.

  5. BTW, are you familiar with Toni Morrison’s Recitatif?

    I only recently became acquainted with this short story, but it touches on both racism and the tendency for people to “revise” history.

  6. John & Heather,

    I was reading a book at my parents’ yesterday about the rapture. I can’t remember the title or the author, but I am going to have to get a copy. The author was examining the passages that the rapture proponents use to support their view, and he examined the Greek meanings of the word and studied how the words were used not only in those passages but in other passages in the Bible. He contends that much of the confusion about Bible interpretation has to do with mistranslation from Hebrew/Greek to English. Is this, perhaps, what you are referring to, John?

    1. Jay,

      That’s definitely a relevant consideration.

      I’m not really a knowledgeable student of either Greek or Hebrew, but have read that biblical Greek is quite precise and cannot always be translated word-for-word into English. In some instances, it may take several English words to relay a meaning which is close to that of a single Greek word. And translators can still fall short of the intended meaning.

      I’ve been told that Hebrew is a “picturesque” language. It is my understanding that there is quite a bit of word-play in many OT passages which was meant to bring certain key themes or pictures to the mind of the reader/listener. And recognizing the significance of numbers, colors or written forms such as chiasms also are important aspects of understanding the main point of many OT passages.

      I believe that some words such as “baptize” were never actually translated at all. So, in order to understand what is meant by a text which references it, we would need to try to return to the historical use of that word in its original cultural context in order to find an appropriate modern application.

      My husband and I have encountered some of the “Hebrew roots” type teaching which tends to press for calling Jesus the Messiah rather than the Christ. I’ve heard the argument that the Hebrew word is the more accurate rendering. But, both the Hebrew and Greek actually mean “anointed”, which would have been a good English translation and a wonderful way to give New Testament readers a significant connection to the repeated OT imagery of “the Anointed One” who was to come. I have no idea why such a clarifying option would have been rejected by translators.

      I can’t answer for John, but know that some people have issues with accepting such things as, say, talking serpents. I can respect that and have personally considered that repeated personification of the Tempter in reptilian terms is largely symbolic even as I believe that the events of the creation/temptation/fall are literal.

      If I’ve accurately grasped John’s explanation, I’m guessing his concern relates more to the apparent discrepancies we see between modern scientific findings and “young-earth” assertions. Or, perhaps biblical references to such things as the Israelites being instructed by God to eliminate the Canaanite peoples as the Hebrews were led by Him to the land God had promised to Abraham and his “seed”.
      He has mentioned before his frustration over the ongoing Middle-East conflict which involves the parts of scripture that appear to grant natural-born Israelis the right to that plot of land…even to the point of claiming divine sanction to physically annihilate the current residents in order to claim it.

      Again, I don’t want to speak on John’s behalf, but your observation about interpretation is excellent.

      Not only can we mis-translate certain words, but we can also miss the intended meaning of a narrative. There are many physical pictures in the OT which reference the person of Christ and/or spiritual reality which transcends any particular earthly time frame.

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