Plains, Rocks & Cosmos

In anticipation of a summer touring the Great Plains, I took some time off from the blog to immerse myself in a surprisingly rich literature on the subject, which of course has nothing to do with religion. I will say, however, that anyone who has yet to discover this richness or is thinking about exploring the Plains should consider reading some of the books listed at the end of this post. Having just read each in succession, the immersive effect is pronounced and I’m ready to go but the weather is not yet cooperating. While waiting, and in anticipation of the anthropology of religion course I will be teaching in the middle of the summer, it’s time to round back toward religion.

The good news is that in doing so, I won’t run the risk of being brutally murdered. For the third time this year, a “secular” Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death by irate religionists. These three blasphemous bloggers were writing on subjects and topics similar to those that appear here, but were doing so knowing they would be targeted. Talk about courage.

Here in the United States, we fortunately do not have to confront this sort of thing, though we do have young earth Creationists who are relatively harmless. While I have never paid them much mind because arguing with them is futile, a geology professor thinks that the rocks disprove creationism. He apparently does not know that young earth Creationists have considered his argument and flatly rejected it. They are not interested in science and accept it only when it suits their psychological needs or religious purposes. But having said this, I was a bit shocked to encounter the following sentence in the professor’s piece:

“Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves.”

This is an unfortunate choice of words. Why should we have faith in a story told by rocks? Rocks don’t tell stories. Geologists provide us with theory and data based narratives about rocks. These “stories” are subject to challenge, revision, and reversal. This method has nothing to do with faith.

From rocks to the cosmos, which is timely for anyone who has recently seen “Interstellar,” a movie with some brilliant science marred by metaphysical speculations about trans-dimensional love tunnels. It was marred even further by Matthew McConaughey’s overwrought acting, but that is another story. The main story here is the science based on Kip Thorne’s work and book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. Though I am only about halfway through and not sure I understand everything, it is great for bending the mind. The cosmos is stranger than fiction and perhaps even myth.

Finally, the cosmos — and cosmological theories — are the subject of this dense piece by Ross Andersen over at Aeon. Cosmology, it appears, is in crisis and may stay that way for quite some time, perhaps forever. While this may unsettle some, I find it invigorating. When it comes to large and perhaps intractable subjects like this, I always find it helpful to read a good history of the field, so thanks to Andersen for recommending Helge Kragh’s Conceptions of Cosmos: From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology. It’s next on my list.

And speaking of lists, here is the one I promised at the beginning of this post, for all lovers of the Great Plains:

Great Plains by Ian Frazier
The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb
Love Song to the Plains by Mari Sandoz
Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains by Waldo Wedel
The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones
Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains by William Ashworth
Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains by Jack Brink

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4 thoughts on “Plains, Rocks & Cosmos

  1. Michael

    I’ve just discovered this blog and I absolutely love it. Might I ask, since I’ve read various opinions on the subject (and even a few articles on your blog), what is your current thinking about what the earliest homo sapien religious practices/beliefs seem to be? Animism or some pan-animism where the life-force was venerated in everything, within and without? Or the High God (it seems the vast majority of African tribes have a High God, however near or distant, so if the out of Africa theory holds, wouldn’t it be safe to assume, no matter hunter-gatherer or agricultural, more pristine beliefs are to be found in Africa?)? Leading scholars seem to either nbot know, no longer search for the origins, or believe High Gods came with farming (and I don’t know where that puts animism). I’m fascinated by the subject!

  2. Alan Button

    Michael: I am a shell midden researcher along the coast of Maine, I know these ancient people had/have a closer spiritual connection with the earth (before it was seriously influenced by christian missionaries). My deep interest is the early beliefs towards the ‘stone people’: what ceremonies were performed while making simple lithic tools? How were they viewed? How is the energy of the spirit passed on as a tool is reduced/changed? Your help is greatly appreciated in the matter. Thanks, Alan Button.

  3. Jonathan

    Welcome back. I was worried when your blog started looking broken and there were no posts for a long time.

  4. powerlounger


    Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains” is such a fantastic book. I already dug your blog, and as I was reading this post had decided to write a reply in order to recommend that book…until I saw it at the top of your list w/ no little delight.

    The topics of your dissertation & the blog are a sort of nexus of things I also study: I’m working on a story that tackles precisely the same ideas in a meta-fictional way (recursive frame-stories encasing a fable which serves up one “answer” as to the origin of behaviorally modern peopl0.

    Rock on!

    Oakland, CA

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