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Tony W. Cartledge | Blog


I want to go to Iraq

Not today, or tomorrow.

Probably not for several years, and certainly not as a soldier -- but I want to go to Iraq.

I want to go as a tourist, a student, a pilgrim of sorts.

I want to see where Western civilization was born, where writing was invented, where ziggurats once reached for the sky.

I'd like to visit the ruins of Ur, where the Sumerians lived, where Abraham was born, where kings like Meskalamdug and Shulgi ruled. It's in the Basra region of southern Iraq.

I'd like to stand on what is left of the Etemenanki (left), a massive temple in Babylon. I show satellite images of it to my students to remind them what great builders the Babylonians were. I'd like to walk where Nebuchadnezzar walked, not far from modern-day Baghdad. I'd like to sit, like the Hebrew exiles, by the waters of Babylon, but without any cause for weeping.

I want to go to Nineveh, near the northern city of Mosul, in the heartland of what was once Assyria. I'd like to lay eyes on what is left of the great palace of Sennacherib and other evidence of the ancient land that plays such a large role in the Bible.

Most of all, I'd like to go in peace. I'd like to visit a land where people recognize the lunacy of self-triggered body bombs and the fringe fundamentalists who exploit terror for their own gain.

I don't know when that day will come, but I pray for its advent. There are recent signs of hope. The war seems to be winding down and the populace seems restive for peace. More specifically, officials have announced plans to reopen the Iraqi National Museum within the next month (though other officials disagree). The museum, which suffered unconscionable looting when U.S. troops invaded Baghdad in 2003, has recovered many of its priceless artifacts, and is supposed to be secured by a "relics protection force."

Iraqi officials have also expressed a desire to develop the ruins of Babylon as a tourist destination, according to a report on A temporary U.S. Army base on the site caused major damage to ancient pavements and walls, but the U.S. Embassy is reportedly spending $700,000 towards restoration efforts. It's not enough, I'm sure, but it's a start. The World Monuments Fund is also aiding the efforts, and if peace becomes a reality, others will pitch in.

When they're ready for tourists, I want to be one of them, and for once, I hope there's a crowd.


The next Baptist century

A news blog from Baptists Today:

GREENSBORO, N.C. – How can Baptists maintain an effective witness into their fifth century of existence? More than 400 participants gathered at First Baptist Church February 9 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement and to anticipate what the fifth century of Baptist life might hold.

Sponsored by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC), the “Convocation for a New Baptist Century” drew guests and CBFNC ministry partners from across the state and as far away as Texas and Washington, D.C.

CBFNC coordinator Larry Hovis said that if Baptists in the next century are to be faithful, they must preserve and live by bedrock Baptist principles, pursue the mission of God, and work together in missional collaboration.

Hovis highlighted the traditional Baptist hallmarks of believing in the Lordship of Christ, trusting the Scriptures as authoritative, recognizing that every believer is a priest before God, appreciating the autonomy of the local church, promoting religious liberty, and intentionally cooperating with others.

In pursuing the mission of God, Cooperative Baptists must recognize their need for one another, Hovis said, and “provide an authentic Baptist community where we can celebrate our oneness and respect our differences.”

Past programs of cooperation among Baptists have focused on funding from the churches and governance of funded institutions by the denomination, Hovis said. He pledged that CBFNC, in contrast, will facilitate mutual collaboration based on conversations between representatives of the churches, the supported ministries, and CBFNC leadership.

Entering the new century, he said, CBFNC is ready to serve as a “robust catalyst” to assist collaborative partners “as we pursue God’s mission together.”

Earlier in the day, Baptist historian Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, presented a paper addressing “The New Baptist Century in Historical Context,” and responded to questions in a time of lively discussion.

In a closing message, Mike Queen, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wilmington, said Baptists are “tribal people.” Christians have divided themselves into many tribes, he said, and Baptists have developed tribes of their own, but “that’s how it’s always been in the Kingdom of God.

Queen noted how Moses instructed the Israelites to encamp by tribes surrounding the tabernacle, each flying its distinctive banner. Thus, “both unity and uniqueness were celebrated” in the peoples’ “corporate identity as children of Israel and particular identity as members of their tribes.”

As a former president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSCNC) General Board, Queen was a tireless advocate for unity within the BSCNC during the 1990s, an effort that ultimately ran aground in the rising conservative tide that now dominates the state convention. During the same period, CBFNC emerged as an alternative nexus of cooperation and fellowship for those who felt disenchanted with or disenfranchised by the BSCNC.

“I spent a long time chasing the wrong things in Baptist life the past 25 years,” Queen told the congregation. “CBF of North Carolina is my tribe in the Baptist nation,” he said, “but it is not a denomination to be won: it’s all about mission and freedom.”

“It’s exciting to be a part of something that is still new and filled with hope we can scarcely imagine,” Queen said. That hope can be found in Jesus alone and calls for vigilant focus, he said, for “When you fall in love with an institution, you may lose the ability to follow Jesus.”

“The easy part of our faith is to believe,” Queen concluded. “The following part gets hard: that’s where we need one another.”

In a key component of the convocation, representatives from 23 organizations recognized as CBFNC ministry partners joined CBFNC leaders and the congregation in a litany of common mission and mutual support.

A choir composed of students from North Carolina Baptist colleges led participants in worship, concluding with a rousing choral benediction that brought participants to their feet.


What would you do with $60,000?

A report tells us that Randall Price, director of the "Center for Judaic Studies" at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., is trying to raise $60,000 so he can uncover Noah's ark atop Mt. Ararat.

Charging high fees to fundamentalist Christians who want to prove the Bible by finding Noah's ark is a lucrative business for bureaucrats in Turkey. Price says he is following up on a lead from a shepherd who claims he remembers playing on the ark as a boy. Supposedly, he led Price to the spot -- at 15,000 feet -- last September, where they expected to find the ark buried in a glacier, but discovered nothing more than a 60-foot-deep pile of boulders. The article says that "Price believes the landslide may have resulted from attacks against Kurdish rebels on the mountain, or perhaps from explosives that were set off to cover up the ark."

There's always an excuse, a theory, a speculation -- but never an ark. One of Price's predecessors, retired pilot Richard Bright, says he has made 30 trips to Turkey in search of the ark. There are always tips, but never so much as a peg made of gopher wood: just enough to keep the wealthy Westerners coming back.

Of course, the late pseudo-archaeologist Ron Wyatt, a retired medical doctor, claimed to have found the ark years ago and published pictures of it on his website, which is more akin to supermarket tabloids touting an alien invasion than to archaeology. Wyatt also claimed to have found brimstone from Sodom and Gomorrah, Egyptian chariot wheels from the Red Sea, and the Ark of the Covenant, among other things.

But back to Price and his effort to raise $60,000 to pay off Turkish officials, buy earth-moving and ice-melting equipment, and somehow transport it to the top of Mt. Ararat: he believes the project is worthwhile because making a discovery would "mean so much to so many, many people worldwide."

It seems to me that if God had wanted us to prove ancient Bible stories true (thus eliminating the need for faith), the ark would have been miraculously preserved and left in plain view, rather than hidden beneath inconvenient rubble in the wide variety of places aging shepherds claim to have remembered seeing it.

I can think of many ways $60,000 could "mean so much to so many" in this world. Spending it on yet another expedition to Mt. Ararat is so far down the list that I'd have to move 60 feet of rock and melt a glacier to find it.

[The photo of Mt. Ararat is my own, taken from the Armenian side of the border with Turkey. "Big Ararat" is to the right, and "Little Ararat" to the left.]


The pill: boon or bane?

Was the invention of the birth control pill a good thing or a bad thing? Most people, I suspect, have never considered the options.

In a world of limited resources that continues to be threatened by overpopulation, there are good arguments for seeing the invention of the pill as a boon to humankind: the earth's population stood at about three billion in 1960, but had doubled to six billion by 2000. By 2010, estimates suggest the population will reach about 9.2 billion. Many parts of the world already face severe food and resource shortages, fueling massive immigrations that leave other nations feeling threatened.

In an opinion piece in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, Carl Djerassi, a chemist who contributed to the formulation of synthetic hormones used in the birth control pill, complained that a declining population has led to a demographic catastrophe in Austria, an "impossible situation" in which there aren't enough working people to support the retired people. Baptist Press picked up the story Feb. 5, asserting that Djerassi had connected the advent of the pill to Austria's population decline and was "lamenting the way the pill has been used."

Djarassi didn't draw a straight line between the pill and the problem, however, and later wrote a second column in which he spoke of other issues contributing to Austrian couples' trend to having fewer children. As explained in this corrective column in The Guardian posted Jan. 26, Djerassi's opinion piece made no explicit mention of contraception in general or the pill in particular: Catholic Cardinal Christoph Schönborn cited Djerassi's article as ammunition in lambasting the use of contraception, and confusion ensued (German readers can find the original article and the later effort to correct misperceptions by searching for "Carl Djerassi" on the Der Standard website).

But back to the point initially raised: what about Djerassi's expressed concern about the declining population in his home country? Europe as a whole has been in a population decline for some time, with the birthrate dropping as low as 1.3 in some countries (2.1 is considered ideal for sustaining the same population).

In a much more comprehensive analysis of the issue written for the New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto points to a number of factors for the decline: the pill isn't one of them, though its availability certainly contributes to families having more options in family planning.

While the Catholic church continues to oppose artificial birth control and some conservative Protestants such as Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have openly decried deliberate childlessness as a sin, some of the most socially conservative countries -- such as Italy -- have the lowest birthrates.

Shorto points to a variety of other factors impacting the decision to have more or fewer babies. He points, for example, to one statistic that seems counter-intuitive: in Europe, women who are part of the work force tend to have more babies than those who stay at home. A part of the equation, it seems, has to do with social customs and a husband's willingness to contribute: women who have to do all the childcare and housework are less likely to want multiple children. Another factor is the timing of births. The longer young adults remain in their parents' home (a powerful contraceptive) and the older they are when the first child is born, the less likely they are to have additional children.

Shorto points out that European countries with the healthiest birthrates are Scandinavian countries in which the government provides financial and social support for families. Across the Atlantic, America maintains a healthy 2.1 birthrate while providing few economic incentives beyond an annual per-child tax credit, but generally offering greater flexibility for women to re-enter the job market. Arnstein Aassve, a Norwegian researcher working in Italy, told Shorto “You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.”

Such arguments mean little to social conservatives who dislike the empowerment of women that comes with the availability of contraception, or those who argue (as Mohler does) that some versions of the pill actually constitute early abortion rather than contraception because they prevent fertilized eggs from becoming attached to the lining of the uterus.

Some who complain about lower birth rates, I'm convinced, are not as concerned about fewer babies being born, as they are about fewer white babies being born. And, the problem of there being too few people of working age to support the elderly is not a factor of population decline alone -- health advances that add decades to our lifespans and trends toward early retirements (especially in Europe) compound that problem considerably.

The birth control pill, in itself, has no moral component. Like an automobile, a kitchen knife, or most any scientific or technological development, it can be used in positive or negative ways. The world is in no danger of running out of people, and global overpopulation that overwhelms the world's resources remains a present threat. Societies that, for whatever reason, shrink beyond sustainability may simply have to develop measured immigration policies that provide employment opportunities for people from underdeveloped nations, who in turn can pay the taxes necessary to support the aging but indigenous population.

I'm neither a social scientist nor an economist, and I recognize that there are unlikely to be any simplistic or universal answers to issues of population diversity.

What I do believe is that there's more to having babies than maintaining population levels for either ethnic groups or countries. Whatever their social, cultural, or political situation, babies should be wanted -- and their parents should be able to care for them.

[Graph from the U.S. Census Bureau]


Yard ornament with a past

She inherited the old stone jar from an aunt and didn't know what else to do with it, so she put it in the yard as a garden ornament. After 20 years, however, she decided to clean it up and have it appraised.

It turns out that the unidentified woman, from the English town of Dorset, had been decorating her garden with a 3,000-year-old relic, a ceremonial container designed to hold a deceased Egyptian's liver.

When Egyptians of sufficient means were mummified, ancient undertakers would remove various internal organs and pack them in natron to dry them out. When dry, the organs would be put into one of four canopic jars, which would be stored in a chest near the mummified body. Typically, each jar was topped by the image of an Egyptian god with a flair for protecting the particular organs inside.

The English woman's jar, which was dated between 1150 and 1069 B.C., has the image of human-faced Imseti on top, suggesting that it was designed to hold someone's liver. The woman seemed relieved that she'd kept it in the garden rather than the kitchen: "It's not the sort of thing you want to keep flour in."

If you're in the market for a liver jar, it goes on sale Feb. 5 at Duke's auction house in Dorchester.

[Story and photo from]