“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” opens the first line of the “Good Book” in the chapter which shares a title with this essay. The Judeo-Christian creation myth put forward in the book of Genesis is easily the most successful of the thousands of foundational myths of all the world’s cultures. That being the case dear reader, I shall not insult you with a detailed reproduction of the seven day creation story which culminated in the molding from mud of a lonely and impressionable man with a weakness for apples.
What is behind the worldwide success of this tale?
Every culture on earth, from Polynesia to South America, after all has some myth or other about how everything came into existence. So what prompted billions of native peoples in Asia, Africa and Roman-occupied Europe to abandon their firmly held myths and defer to Adam and Eve?
The Maasai for example had a lovely tale of how their ancestors descended a giant hide that stretched from the clouds into the plains of the Rift Valley and the Kikuyu had the tale of Gikuyu and Mumbi as their Adam and Eve equivalents, to name just a few low-hanging examples I remember from primary school. Few people, if any, still take seriously these stories, yet the Genesis creation myth has somehow escaped a similar transcendence by logic in Africa. One need not squander much time pointing out the flaws in the Genesis since a child could easily show them to you, as indeed many often do. It’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, for example, to point out that with only two sons, Adam’s bloodline should have promptly been arrested with the death of Cain. As with the tale of the Emperor’s new clothes, it’s only the innocent or the impolite that remark on such absurdities.
Is this what once proud African nations yielded their own myths for? Did this suggestion of the incestuous population of the earth by way of the Middle East strike them as superior logic?
I can only speculate as to what my ancestors’ motivations were for swallowing this story whole. To this end, I’ve concluded that either:
- a) They were impressed by the soundness of it’s logic, or
- b) They had pragmatic reasons quite separate from the truth of the story (coercion or bribery etc), for adopting this myth.
I strongly distrust the first assumption. As for the first possibility, as I’m sure you by now suspect, I see nothing logically superior in the proposition that a talking snake and an human affinity for apples is the cause of all our current woes to the proposition that the Maasai were space aliens before they descended a hide-coated escalator. That is the benefit of the doubt I’m willing to extend pre-colonial Africans. This is not at all to say that they were not superstitious, because they very much were, but because they would need a good reason to abandon their own brand of superstition for the imperial variety. This brings me to the second possibility.
Few modern commonwealth Christians are willing to concede the point, but the reasons for their ancestors conversion (and by extension their own) had little to do with the power of “the holy spirit” but by pure unbridled pragmatism. Missionaries rarely ever came empty-handed, as would need to be the case for a control test of this point. Along with their bibles also came social goods such as education, healthcare and in some cases security. (Read if you will Caroline Elkins’ Britain’s Gulag, and see what a world of a difference it would have made to your fate as an unfortunate resident of the native reserves of Tetu or Fort Hall if you couldn’t prove your Christian credentials.)
So was it “the word”, or the goodies?
Personally, I’m reluctant to confer too much nobility to our forbears. And though I do not mean to criticize the extraordinary contribution of Christian charities, if I’m right, then it would appear then that secular charities such as Oxfam and MSF are that much more deserving of our support and respect for not exploiting such a great opportunity for proselytizing. For heaven’s sake let’s help them!
Last but not least, we have no right to forget what great difficulty Africans must have had distinguishing between the visitors who came with guns and those who came with bibles. Is it inconceivable to think that the massacred native would have fatalistically concluded that the gods of these white men with fire-sticks was more compentent than his?
As for me, the book of Genesis remains largely unwritten. Its pages only slowly filled in by the tireless efforts of astrophysics and evolutionary biology. And though I may never learn the full story, I’m far happier living in this age of wondrous mystery, than I would in a slave state where the dictated story is the only story.