The good book

Whenever I sat at Joseph and Mary’s dinner table, Mary showed a great deal of interest in my work. In between her frequent forays away from the dining room table to get this or that food item, or to issue instructions to a servant, or whatever, she would sit at the table across from me and ask questions.

“So, have you found anything interesting?” which is a standard question to which the answer was always “no” … we do not want to give people the idea that they should head out into the bush with a shovel. “So, what to the Pygmies think of your research.” And so on.

I remember that during our second dinner, the fourth or fifth question was this:

“So, since Radiocarbon dating has been proved to not work, how do we really know that the earth is billions of years old?”

This is a Repost in celebration of Missionary Weekend

Well, that was not one of the standard questions paleoanthropologists like me usually hear, but it is a standard question often asked by creationists. And since Mary and Joseph were pretty hard core and traditional Christians, I could have guessed that they would also be creationists.

So I answered the question and the conversation moved on.

At the next dinner, six weeks or so later, there was more chatter, and more questions, and then one of those creationist questions popped up. I think it was about Piltdown.

“Since Piltdown was a total forgery, how do we know that all the other fossils are not also forgeries?”

I do not know how many times I had dinner with Joseph and Mary. Once or twice each time I stayed at their mission house, in their guest room for rent, and I probably stayed there four times over two years. So there were about five or six dinners. And for all of then but the first, which is when Mary found out that I studied Human Evolution, there were questions like this.

The last time I stayed in their house, things were different. Grinker and I had come into town, I think with a third colleague, and we could not stay at Bwana Ndege’s home (the inn was full, as it were) so we were assigned to the Mission. However, Joseph and Mary were gone. Their stint in the field was over and they were now back in the US, with their kids, probably not ever to return to Zaire again. Or at least not to this mission station. Such is the way of the missionaries; Other than the catholics, who may well stay for an entire life in one spot, the Evangelical missionaries were rotated in and out at various time scales ranging from weeks to a couple of years. Joseph and Mary had stayed a relatively long time as it was.

In fact, no one had been assigned to replace them at this particular station, so we were sent over to Andre’s place first. Andre, who really had little to do with the missions other than the fact that he was a neighbor and, through his retail store, supplied them with goods, was holding the key to the mission house. So we got the key from Andre and went over to the house to fend for ourselves.

Naturally, we had to poke around a bit. We needed to find bedding, pillows, to check out the plumbing to see if the water was on, and so on. The house was mostly deserted, with most of the furniture with which we were familiar removed, and virtually no evidence of Joseph and Mary themselves remained. All personal items were gone.

But there was one room in the back of the house that was of interest. I had noticed Mary frequently going in and out of this room on our visits. I assumed there was some basic household materiel stored there, or something, because she would go in there often enough, even during dinner. So, curious, I went and had a look.

It was a small bedroom converted to a library. There was a modest set of shelves about one third with books. Most were Readers’ Digest anthologies and that sort of thing, there were bibles in various languages, and some language learning textbooks specific to the region.

Then, there was this other book. This was a well worn, dog-eared volume sitting on a shelf more or less by itself, just below my eye level. It has numerous bits of paper sticking out of it, being used as bookmarks.

And the title was: “How to talk to evolutionists.”


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