Being a Voyeur of Religion, Politely

A while ago I asked on my Facebook page whether anyone had seen the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As one might expect, a couple of people, who possibly thought I was joking, noted that the Dead Sea scrolls were part of the bible, and all that stuff was implausible stories handed down by ignorant shepherds over the generations, etc., etc., etc.

My first reaction to that, as an anthropologist, was this: “Hey, Imma let you say that now, but if you diss my Pygmies like that I’ll kick your ass.” In other words, I do find it rather condescending when western occidento-hetero-caucasoido-normative types take it on themselves to make blanket statements that some other group of people of which they know nothing are stupid. I understand the whole being annoyed at the bible thing, but this is where modern-day new atheists can be thoughtless when unpracticed in their philosophy and its application.

But it was only a Facebook comment.

My second thought was this: I never read the sports section of the newspaper, but last year when I came across a large fragment of a 30-year-old sports page from the local paper, hidden inside a wall, I read every word. Wouldn’t you? And the Dead Sea Scrolls are two thousand years old, and about a topic that is pretty much as interesting to me as hockey scores and basketball.

In the end, I went to see the exhibit, and I assure you, the part about the stupid shepherds is not only overwhelmingly outdone by other aspects of the scrolls, but in fact is rather inaccurate. The keepers of the scrolls were more like Moonies than shepherds, except when they were tour guides. That’s a topic I may address at another time.

So the other day I visited the Jeffers Petroglyphs site in southwestern Minnesota. That’s also a religious exhibit of sorts, if we assume (and we should) that the symbols pecked and carved into two-billion-year-old red quartzite played a role in various Native American cultural practices having to do with spirits, gods, afterlife, and so on. Jeffers has thunderbirds, lightning symbols, warriors doing battle with shamans, turtles, magic turtles, hands, bison (probably the extinct kind), atlatls, and more. The guides, polite and well informed caucasionormatives, describe various hypotheses about the symbols and who made them and why, play down the violent parts (maybe that one of the guy with the spear in his chest bleeding all over the place is all about the transition from boyhood to manhood?) and try to link the religious nature of the site to the presumed religiosity (or, at least, spirituality!) of the visitors. The prayer we make now at this site is enhanced by the thousands of years of others coming here to pray. And so on.

And both subjects have their holocaustic contexts. The Dead Sea Scrolls were probably kept by a Jewish religious sect, or at the very least, were part of a Jewish Renaissance following an exodus of sorts, and were a big deal in a Jewish world increasingly controlled and colonized by repressive and violent outsiders known today as heroes of Western Civilization. And the next two thousand years is, as they say, bloody history.

Jeffers is much older and diffuse in its cultural associations but was a sacred site to the Dakota (and others) at a time when the practice was to do war with the Indians, kill a lot of them, cut off some of their body parts to sell later in town as curios, or deflesh their bones, varnish them, keep them on display in your office, and to do all the killing in a way that maximized your votes, if you happen to be a politician. And, just to put this in perspective, I think we as a civilization came to abhor the Jewish Holocaust at the time it was revealed, in the mid 1940s. Most of the native body parts harvested, for example, during the Dakota Uprising (centered geographically near Jeffers) were returned between 1971 and 1990, and by force of law, not a sense of shame or propriety.

I recommend a visit to both. But don’t be a dick about it. Your ancestors have already pretty much taken care of that.

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One Response to “Being a Voyeur of Religion, Politely”

  1. August 18th, 2010 at 5:30 am

    Adamo says:

    One doesn’t have to believe to study something and find it interesting. Consider something as mundane and current as the plot of a movie in your local theater.

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