May 29, 2012

Cross-Cultures

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This year I started reading some of The Doorway Papers, works by Christian anthropologist Arthur C. Custance.  I finished the first book, Noah's Three Sons, in January; most of you probably remember that I did a follow-up post called Image Dei, inspired by some of the things Custance wrote.  Apparently his writing tends to be inspiring, because this post flows from the second book, Genesis and Early Man. 

Most of the essays in Early Man deal with the paleontological record and are more technical than the those in Noah's Three Sons, which made it slower going for me.  (Bones get boring after a while.  So do peccary teeth.)  His last section, however, is titled "Light from Other Forms of Cultural Behavior on Some Incidents in Scripture," and this was the one I found to be of particular interest.  He takes some of the more puzzling narratives and instructions in Genesis and expands upon them, showing how they are linked with cultural patterns the world over.  For instance, he starts with the statement in Genesis 2 that "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife," and goes on to show not only the prevalence of having the man go to his wife's family, but also the practical merit of doing it in this manner and not the other way around. 

I confess, some of the points he addresses were not ones I had ever thought very hard about; but they provided food for thought all the same.  Custance addresses most of the cultural details, including polygamy, without passing overt judgment, just as the Scripture tends to mention them in passing and without critique.  Rather, he delves into the why's and the wherefore's of these cultural norms, presenting them in a clearer light to the befuddled Western mind.

Naturally, this is interesting for its bearing on Genesis.  That was, after all, Custance's intent.  However, being a writer, I tend to look at everything from a writer's point of view.  In this case, the problem of cultures started me thinking about world-building - the crafting of peoples in fantasy worlds that are somehow different from cultures past and present.  We want ours to be unique, and though we may be inspired by ancient Egypt or Norse mythology, we prefer that the inspiration be subtle rather than obvious.  No one wants their story to be the one where the reader can go two pages and say, "Oh, I know where THAT'S from."

All that is perfectly reasonable, and provides incentive for branching out and exercising creativity.  But in reading Genesis and Early Man, it occurred to me that there is as much - or more - to be learned from the similarities between cultures as from the differences.  We tend to assume that the culture of the Eskimos will be vastly removed from that of the Australian aborigines, and to some extent, due to the demands of environment, it is; and yet at the same time, there are some amazing parallels to be noted between them.  Recall the Mankind has a "common ancestor," Noah, and a common starting place, Mesopotamia.  Cultural arteries all flow from that heartland; links between traditions stretch from one end of the earth to the other.

This is a fact worth considering, especially as we build our fantasies and populate them with people out of our imaginations.  Of course we want each culture we create to be different, but what elements do they have in common?  In marriage and in family, in religion and in government, are there threads that unite them?  If the world is tied to Earth, and perhaps even populated by humans, what links still exist between our world and theirs?  I have always thought it a good idea to come up with a history for the peoples; so much of what makes up a culture and its foreign policy depends on its history, so it seems impossible to create a believable world without one.  And now, added to that, I am of the opinion that anthropology - the study of Man - is just as pertinent a study for any writer.

In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of fields of knowledge that aren't pertinent to a writer.

6 comments:

  1. This was actually quite interesting O_O And I heartily agree with your last sentence. I don't think there ARE any fields of knowlege that aren't in some way, shape, or form helpful somehow.
    (Pastuerization, maybe?)

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  2. Pasteurization is great to know if you're writing about a farm. Hey, even geometry is helpful; apparently people once thought that the elements of earth, fire, water, and air each had its own geometric shape (and the universe was a giant dodecahedron). There are interesting things in every field!

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  3. Psht, that's silly. Everyone knows the universe looks like a tesseract.

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  4. As I'm on holiday (and just finished writing a short story for a competition), I hadn't intended to drop over to check your blog especially since we're paying for internet. But I'm sneaking over to comment, Abigail all the same!

    I so agree with you, about delving for a history of the world you're writing, based on the many different cultures of the world.... as a good example I think Tolkien nailed it down amazingly.

    And you're right! Isn't everything we learn in life helpful to a writer? Hmm, I don't like thinking about Mathematics though much as its needed, lol!!

    I'll be e-mailing you soon God willing by the way, once I'm back from holidays.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jenny and Mirriam - True. But I do like saying "dodecahedron."

    Joy - Thanks for commenting! I agree, Tolkien did a great (some might say, obsessive) job crafting his world. The problem is that nowadays many writers of fantasy simply borrow from him, after he did all the hard work. That, I think, is a pity.

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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