Friday, December 20, 2013

The New Mormon Studies Review and the Passing of an Age

I guess I’m getting old enough to understand that I have lived through historically significant times. What used to be current events are now my personal (should I say biased?) memories of the past. I have just recently come face-to-face with this reality as my son Spencer handed me the first volume of the new (and much anticipated) Mormon Studies Review (Volume 1, 2014).

I have been eager to read this new issue for many months now. As a regular subscriber to The FARMS Review (which had just recently changed its name to Mormon Studies Review), FARMS Review of Books, and Review of Books on the Book of Mormon – all of which (together) comprise a continuous publication that began in late 1980’s – I had been receiving notices that the next issue had been put on hold while new formatting and editorial changes were being made. The new Review was scheduled to come out by the end of this year (2013). And indeed it has.

I realize that it may be presumptuous of me to comment on the recent changes. I have never been privy to the decisions that have directed any of the previous forms of the Review. My perspective is simply one of an interested reader – albeit a reader of decades. And it is with this limitation in mind that I consider this important LDS publication through my own historical lens.

In truth, the new publication has left me feeling a bit nostalgic. I discovered the earlier versions of the Review during the formative years of my under-graduate and graduate education at BYU. From an academic standpoint, I have grown up with the Review.

In the mid 1980’s I had just recently returned from my mission and had stumbled upon my first volume of Nibley’s opera while foraging in the Harold B. Lee Library for something religiously substantial to read. This first encounter with Professor Nibley’s work was a real life changing experience for me, just as it has been for hundreds (if not thousands) of others.

This was during the time when the newly formed Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies had joined efforts with Deseret Book to publish The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. In 1989, the year I graduated with my Master’s Degree, I received a copy of Volume 1 of the Collected Works from my parents for my birthday.

That year (1989) also marked the beginning of the Review (called then the Review of Books on the Book of Mormon). And, in hindsight, it is obvious how I have come to associate both the Review and the works of Nibley in a common light. Both (together) have virtually defined Mormon apologetics for over half a century. Yet this admission almost seems to be an understatement. Beyond defining Mormon apologetics, they have come to define a large part of Mormon scholarship to a rapidly expanding world of educated Latter-day Saints. The Review, in particular, has been one of only a few venues that faithful Latter-day Saint scholars have had available to them.

And this has been beneficial. But, as I can see now, it has also been limiting. It was immensely satisfying to emerging academics, like me, to see that there were legitimate answers to our critics. We could continue our scholarly subjects even as we continued true to our faith. Indeed, our scholarly pursuits could often be seen as strengthening our faith. We developed a real regard for the scripture in the 88th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants (verse 118) that encourages us to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith”.

I should add here a note on the significance of this to young people of the Church. Most emerging scholars come into their own during the very impressionable years of their 20’s. This is a period of important spiritual development, a period when students rely heavily on mentors – especially academic mentors (such as major professors, committee members, teachers, and other capable adults), and a period when academic zeal can get away from the best of us and relegate the importance of the First Commandment to a side-bar in our lives.

Ecumenicalism can have the unfortunate effect of minimizing faith or of making faith a matter of relative preference. Faithful arguments – especially scholarly arguments in defense of faith – have a way of balancing this tendency. They are also the arguments that endure where current scholarly trends often become dated. There is a reason that Christian apologetics has been around from nearly the beginning of the faith. And it is a needed endeavor among Latter-day Saints today even as it was nearly two millennia ago among the first Christians. 

There is a recognized place for scholarly apologetics among our other Christian friends. The ecumenical journals First Things and Touchstone are two that come readily to mind. These journals are filled with a Christian scholarship that is not afraid to defend the faith. Are we unwilling (or unable), as Latter-day Saints, to do the same?  

Or maybe the time is not right. Perhaps now is the time for bridge-building, for mending some of the relationships that have been strained and broken through decades of misunderstanding. Mormonism certainly lends itself to American ecumenicalism. If we have to put or defensive hats in the closet in order to fully engage with this needed dialogue among our religious peers, maybe it is for the best.

But what is to become of our Latter-day Saint tradition of apologetics at this stage of the game? Will the changing focus of the Review absorb this history of debate into a more conciliatory dialogue? Will Mormon detractors become less vitriolic, or will we simply ignore them? Maybe these are not even the right questions.

To the extent that the new publication refuses to review misinformed and sloppy anti-Mormon publications, it will be providing a needed service. This I see as a positive development if, in fact, the first issue is any indication of things to come. Sadly, however, I don’t think it likely that deeply flawed anti-Mormon publications will stop being produced. The average Latter-day Saint will continue to be confronted with critics and will need to look for answers about specific texts. I’m not sure that the new Review will meet this need. For readers that want a balanced and nuanced treatment of Mormon publications, the new Review will be a clear improvement. For those needing a simpler clarification of a text – spelled out in more black and white language – some other resource will need to become available. Perhaps we will rely on the internet, and this may be sufficient. But it may also leave many of us disappointed, if not misled.   

The new Review is a publication for scholars – Mormon and non-Mormon alike. But it also serves the Mormon Church as a resource to promote inter-faith dialogue. It is very well named – focusing, as it does, on “Mormon studies”.  But it will not be lost on previous readers that this focus, now long in coming, will be seen to contrast with Mormon apologetics. We will not be seeing any more classic defenses of the faith in this new Review. Any defense that we do see will be more of a nod to scholarly decorum than to a reasoned faith.

In the final essay of the new Review, Blair Hodges finds Mormon Studies extending back as far as Leonard Arrington and Moses Rischin, then proceeding to authors such as Grant Underwood and Jan Shipps, and continuing with Richard Bushman, among others. These are impressive names, for sure, but it is quite a different pedigree from what the “former” Review would claim. As an organ of Mormon apologetics, the former Review carried on a tradition that extended back at least as far as Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites (published by the Deseret News Press in 1952). 

So while I am impressed with the new Review – with both the wisdom and timing of this new direction – I am also saddened at the passing of an age. And I’m somewhat worried about where this will send our would-be Mormon apologists. Is it too soon to recognize a now erstwhile period of classic Mormon apologetics? Maybe we should call it the “Age of Nibley” – but this sounds too patronizing. Maybe this former tradition will move in another and equally profitable direction. Or maybe the significance of the period, and the demise of classic Mormon apologetics, will go un-noticed and fall from our interest altogether. I guess we will have to wait and see. In the meantime I wish the new Mormon Studies Review and its custodians a healthy and long-lived success. And even more to the point – I look forward to a long and positive dialogue with our non-Mormon colleagues. Bon Voyage!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Real Live Treasure Maps

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, the young Jim Hawkins finds a map in the sea chest of the erstwhile pirate Billy Bones. Jim learns that the map is, in fact, a treasure map and sets out with a colorful crew of adventurers to find the hidden wealth.

In Susan Cooper’s children’s classic Over Sea, Under Stone, the Drew children find themselves secretly going through the attic of an old coastal house in Cornwall while on vacation. The youngest child Barnabas happens upon an old manuscript containing a map and an ancient text that lead the children on an Arthurian adventure to find the Holy Grail.

Treasure maps and coded messages make for fun suspenseful stories. They show up regularly in books and magazines targeting all age groups. The film industry also capitalizes on their appeal on a regular basis. The Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean movies are just a few of the more popular examples but there are many others.

Another genre of treasure maps exist, however, that far fewer people are familiar with, even though they involve very real maps and just as much romance and adventure as their more popular counterparts. I’m referring to the hand-crafted maps tucked away in the notebooks and memories of naturalists and other outdoor enthusiasts. And it is no exaggeration to say that these maps are sometimes guarded with the same level of secrecy as any map pointing to a stash of precious metal.

I’m not referring to the thousands of distribution maps of organisms that occur in the libraries and private collections around the world – the kinds of maps one finds in field guides and in the more scholarly journals describing animals and plants. These maps are very important in showing the geographic ranges of species. And as animals and plants change where they live over time, these maps can help us understand more about them. They are fascinating maps in their own right. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call them treasure maps. They are usually drawn to scale and are widely published – without the sensational aura that surrounds a secret.  

Treasure maps are different. They are not generally printed in color on glossy paper (at least not until the treasure has been discovered or until it has gained a general historic interest). They tend to be drawn in notebooks, on separate sheets of paper, or on whatever writing scraps happen to be available. They are frequently drawn in pencil with thin curvy lines showing streams, natural outcroppings, farms, buildings, meadows, prominent trees, etc., all of which are almost never drawn accurately to scale. And the location of the specific habitat is usually marked with an ex – which is often encircled.

Yet while it is true that these crude methods of crafting treasure maps can add to their mystique, I don’t mean to imply that other maps are not similarly appealing. Most maps are capable of sparking the imagination.

The first gifts that I remember receiving as a young boy were maps. One was a globe and another was a book of antique maps. Before I learned to enjoy reading, I loved to look at them and imagine what unknown places were like. Then as a young teenager I became fascinated with birds, mammals and insects, and I discovered – from distribution maps – that different kinds of creatures could be found in different places not far from my home.

This discovery led me on day hikes and short overnight adventures into the foothills and mountains above my home. I was thrilled to find an abundance of interesting mammals including squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. On occasion I also saw moose, badgers, and skunks. I loved watching the juncos and towhees that were common, and I was thrilled beyond belief the first time I saw an owl – at dusk, as it flew silently over my head. Maps, in a very real way, introduced me to a whole new world.

I began making my own journal entries that occasionally contained hand-written maps of the places I had been. As I go back and read these entries (at least the ones that aren’t lost) I find that the maps are more interesting to me than the texts. I think I understood this at a fairly basic level even as a teenager.

It was then that I began to look at maps a bit more closely. What could I find on another mountain or by a desert spring? What about the many streams and rivers with unusual names that curved in thin blue lines away from mountain peaks? Maybe I would discover a new species near one of them.

Jerry Brotton has recently pointed out that maps have given many imaginative souls the ability “to rise above the earth and look down on it from a divine perspective…”. This comes pretty close to describing the thrill I have often experienced looking at maps and planning expeditions to fascinating places both near and far. I have never really lost my romantic fascination with unknown wild places. Just opening a field guide and glancing through the pages of distribution maps inevitably sets my mind to work planning my next trip.

I have to admit, however, that this sort of thing often gets me into trouble – sort of like chasing a wild goose, as my Mother used to tell me. Just because a map shows the distribution of an animal or plant does not mean that you will automatically find the specific habitat or location of what you go looking for.

Take for example Lewis’s woodpecker. This is a fairly good-sized bird – about the size of a robin – with an attractive red face and pink and white breast. It was named after Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). A distribution map indicates that this interesting bird occurs throughout the western United States – especially throughout the Rocky Mountains. It occurs over a fairly large area. And yet I have only seen it on one occasion, even though I have been watching birds in the Rockies for decades.

I remember the occasion well. I was at home one weekend working in the yard when my friend Steve – obviously excited about something – found me and divulged his important news. He said that a pair of Lewis’s woodpeckers had been sighted near the town of Mapleton, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in driving down to look for them with him.

I quickly rearranged my schedule and off we went. I remember well the lonely road where we found them. There were a few scattered farm houses about with meadows and fields extending into the foothills of the Wasatch Front. We were driving slowly with heads peering up into trees and into bushes looking for any sign of the birds. Finally Steve spotted them in a distant tree.

They weren’t behaving like typical woodpeckers. They would often be perching on branches instead of hanging to the trunk of the tree. And at times they would fly into the air after insects instead of pecking at the bole for subcortical creatures – like most woodpeckers do.

Both Steve and I were thrilled. The place is marked in my memory like a real treasure map. Sadly I have lost the one I think I drew. Even the two tall cottonwoods and the barbed-wire fence – where the two birds where foraging – remain clear to me after all these years. I remember thinking as we left the site that I had just experienced something unusual, something unexpected. In a way I felt privy to a secret.

Through the years I have marked many of these experiences in my journal – often with lined maps and descriptions on how to find the place again. Many biologists do the same thing, especially if they keep a field notebook, like most field biologists do.

I was surprised many years ago to find that these same landmarks and general features found in field notes are also part of real treasure maps. My brother-in-law, who is fascinated with the history of Spanish mines and miners, introduced me to some of the maps of the lost Rhoades gold mines in the Uintah Mountains of Utah. The kinds of maps that have been found (and, in some cases, recreated) are just what one finds in dozens (perhaps hundreds) of field notebooks around the world. Of course this makes perfect sense. A landmark is a landmark regardless of the treasure.

And make no mistake about it, this information is guarded. Biologists know that many species – especially the less common and unusual ones – can be easily exploited by unethical collectors. And so they withhold information about specific localities where some of them live.

I recall some years ago hoping to find a few specimens of the beautiful tiger beetle (Cicindela pulchra). I knew a place above Fort Collins, Colorado where several had been collected in previous years and went looking for them. In fact I ended up returning to the same place several times over several years (always at the right time of the year when they would be out and active) yet I never found a single individual. It turns out that they had been driven to extinction in that place by over-collecting. It’s no wonder that serious biologists are suspicious about anybody they don’t know seeking locality information. And while the removal of a few individuals from a healthy population may be fully justifiable – even helping to promote understanding about a species – removing too many can destroy the population.

Some time ago I was involved with a discussion group considering this very issue. The group was comprised of editors of the international journal Zootaxa. One editor, that was responsible for an interesting but less popular animal group, wanted to get feedback on why specific localities were not listed with the original description of a species. The dilemma became apparent immediately. Locality information should be available, especially in a professional publication; and yet it also needed to be protected, especially when vulnerable species were involved.

This may seem like an unsolvable problem, and yet it has been handled quite nicely now for hundreds of years. Since specific locality data are almost always kept on museum labels near the individual specimen or in the field notebooks of researchers, museum curators get to monitor who has access to this information and who does not. Field notebooks and their accompanying “treasure maps” aren’t available to just anybody.

I don’t mean to imply that only museums keep these valuable maps. This would be impossible given the fact that professional biologists are not the only people interested in finding interesting species, or who draw maps of interesting places. And this brings me to a very important part of the issue: we need more people keeping field notes. We need you to start taking field notes.

Maybe your notebook will be nothing more than a list. Birders are famous list keepers and many of their lists also include valuable locality information. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in keeping butterfly and dragonfly lists too. Wildflower enthusiasts are frequently good note and list makers – as well as good photographers (and artists). When one considers just how intimately connected many animals are to the plants that sustain them, it becomes obvious how valuable good geographic information can be.

If you happen to stop by the side of a country road to take a picture of a pretty wildflower, why not take an extra minute or two to draw a little map of where you spotted it – and perhaps a note of the date and circumstances. Try and capture any insects that might be feeding on the flowers, or what other kinds of plants are doing. The more you do this, the more you will become drawn to the area and its inhabitants even as you begin making a record that could become quite valuable. And you will have started creating your own real live treasure maps.

Perhaps this all sounds a bit too fanciful. But that is precisely the point. Remember that the word “fancy” has several meanings.  Yes, it can refer to an impulse or a delusion. But it can also refer to a skill, to an inclination, or to a dream. It most certainly refers to the imagination. And it is in this context that the difference between joy and sadness are most apparent. And why shouldn’t we be part of a very long and honorable tradition of adventurers, dreamers and romantics? Being able to appreciate a beautiful sunset or the song of phoebe depends entirely upon your fancy – upon your imagination – just like it was for the artists and adventurers of generations past. And besides, human nature is quite clear on this point: there is no better way to capture this very real and very local fancy than with a picture, a poem, or a map.  


The statement from Jerry Brotton comes from the introduction of his book, A History of the World in 12 Maps, published in 2012 by Viking. My distribution map of Lewis’s woodpecker is from National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America (fifth edition). For several images of the Rhoades treasure maps visit

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What is Love?

Several years ago my aging father made a shocking announcement. He said that when he was dating my mother, and for several years after they were married, he did not love her.  I was so upset by this that I was unable to respond, and my brother and sisters were likewise very uncomfortably surprised. Dad had always been devoted to Mom. Yes, they had challenges in their marriage but it was obvious that they loved each other a great deal. And this love has continued and endures.

How, then, could my father admit to such a thing? I wondered about it a lot. It bothered me for quite some time. Obviously he was physically attracted to Mom from the start. He also enjoyed the love letters he got from her while they were dating – the ones signed Love, Elsa. I was certain that he loved her all those years ago. Was Dad losing his mind?

He did admit that he felt a great sense of duty to take care of Mom. And he asked me years later if this duty might not be a form of love. We both came to suspect that the current fashion of emotional romanticism was a bit provincial – not a bad thing, but not a historically complete one either.

If you look in the dictionary under love, you soon notice that there are a handful of definitions for this very common word. It can refer to an affectionate concern for another person or to God, it can be an enthusiasm for something, it can also be a sexual attraction – or the act itself. Love is a zero score in tennis, a material worn in mourning and a game of chance.

A love apple is a tomato, a love handle is a layer of fat, a lovelock is a bit of hair, a lovebird is a kind of parrot, a love bush is a kind of dodder, a love potion is a kind of charm. And so it goes. Clearly, love is a lot of different things.

Here, then, was a possible way out of my confusion. Dad, who has always been more given to cerebration than to sentimentality, may not have recognized a keen emotional response to Mom at first. But love her he certainly did. My oldest sister is proof of that.

But Dad’s admission implied something more. Something happened after living with Mom, starting a family, and struggling together as a couple with the challenges of life. He learned of Mom’s astonishing compassion for everyone. He learned of her devotion to him, and of her enduring faith that would become tested almost beyond belief. Dad learned that Mom was truly amazing.

I have come to realize that for many people the deep connection that binds us to others is not manifestly emotional. In fact, most of the time we create connections with others that we may not even be aware of. Of course, our experience with romantic love can be emotionally profound. But there are many very important connections that simply don’t fit the category.

Little children, for example, rarely feel emotionally attached to their family the same way that adults do. They still have to learn what their developing emotions mean. But this should not imply that they do not form bonds with their family or that they do not love their family. To a child its connection to its mother is the most profound experience of its life.

In fact, I believe that the connection between an unborn child and its mother – direct from the womb, through the placenta and into the lifeblood of the infant – continues throughout life. Yes the physical tissue is sundered shortly after birth, but there remains an unseen umbilicus that no amount of circumstance can render.

I saw this firsthand a number of years ago while serving in a small church group to help a young man overcome some of his challenges. He had become estranged from his mother emotionally and in a number of other ways. She was very traditional and could not tolerate much of his behavior – some of which was quite improper. For his part, he could not tolerate the guilty feelings that she seemed to always impose on him.
And yet in spite of this very real impasse, the young man could not be helped until he was able to overcome the breached relationship with his mother. Through the years of estrangement, the unseen umbilicus was still there.

In my own life, I have recently come to recognize that this connection doesn’t even go away when a mother passes away. Truly it is a universal umbilicus. It is a bond that never dies. And if I might expand somewhat on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s famous essay – it is a most significant proof that “love abides”.

The Apostle Paul understood very well that love is not always a primrose path or a romantic fantasy. In his unsurpassed description of love (found in the 13th chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians) he compares our experience with love as seeing “through a glass, darkly.”

And recently, Pope Francis has emphasized that love is more importantly tied to truth than to passing emotional experiences.

“Love,” he wrote, “cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centeredness and toward another person, in order to build a lasting relationship, love aims at union with the beloved. Here we begin to see how love requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.”

I believe that love is the value and importance we place on the very significant connections in our life. These connections can be quite different depending on the persons, the cultures and the circumstances involved. In our time, the emotional part of love has taken center stage. This may be fine, as far as it goes. But there is also a danger in this.

When we confuse love with positive emotions only, we can make the mistake (as many people often do) of thinking that we no longer love someone who has let us down. “I don’t love you anymore,” are heart-wrenching words that, sadly, are spoken much too often. And then, paradoxically, after the words are spoken, the confession is followed by the aching of the soul. Clearly the connection was not lost.

The truth of these tragic situations is that emotions between estranged lovers can become predominantly negative, even though connections remain. And it is because the connections remain that estrangements like separation and divorce are always so painful, despite the fact that this so-called emotional love has long since dissolved.

It is this modern confusion that makes Kierkegaard’s insistence that love abides so counterintuitive.  After all, people fall into and out of love all the time – or so we believe. If, however, we were to ask ourselves if connections between people were to commonly disappear, we might be less certain.

There is only one way for the true connections of love to be broken, and that is through selfishness. In fact selfishness, in this sense, is the refusal to form or to recognize the importance of connections at all. To be this selfish is to live in a cloistered sensual existence.

Many years ago, I fell in love with Kathy Vernon. We had dated off-and-on for many months before she agreed to accept my second proposal and marry me. We made our formal vows in the Salt Lake (Mormon) Temple in the spring, when the Utah foothills are covered with fresh grass, when new oak leaves are still glossy green, and when sego lilies are young and unblemished.

We knew so little about life and had to learn many basics of human relationships. We inevitably used each other as Guinea pigs as we struggled together, in the laboratory of life, to learn how to make a marriage work. We had to figure out money matters, marital roles and how to stay strong for each other when our first child lingered for months on the brink of death. Sometimes we managed OK. At other times we didn’t.
We learned that Kathy was used to a staid and practical masculinity. She had to adapt to a new husband who was neither of these. We learned that I was used to open and sentimental femininity. And I had to adapt to a new wife that kept things to herself and wasn’t comfortable looking into the deep emotional lives of others.

Often she felt overwhelmed and I felt misunderstood. But through all of the challenges we discovered something early on. We discovered that we needed each other very much. And we discovered this during those times when the connection between us was strained. Sometimes it was strained because of misunderstandings. Sometimes it was strained because school and work took me away from home for a while. In either case, the estrangement hurt each of us a lot. I came to realize – for the second time in my life – that these connections are very real.

The first time I realized this was while Kathy and I were dating at BYU. On one particular day we had been together for much of the afternoon (doing something that I no longer remember). I do remember, however, saying goodbye to her at the outer door of her apartment complex.

I said goodbye to Kathy and proceeded to the parking lot. I no sooner had opened the door of my car when I realized that Kathy was inside the complex standing by her front door locked-out of her apartment. How, exactly, I knew this is beyond me. I could neither see her nor hear her. But somehow I knew anyway.
I decided to act on this unusual insight and proceeded back into the complex. And, just as I expected, Kathy was standing outside her door – locked-out – wondering what to do next. She was surprised to see me. I decided not to go into details right then. I was still trying to figure out what my little mystical experience meant.

I have since come to understand what was unclear to me then: my connection to Kathy goes far beyond the visible and audible. It is a deeper thread that is forever unbreakable.

You may find this admission a bit over-stated.  After all, no one can be sure that love will last forever? Please notice, however, what I actually said. I said that the connection between us would never break. I do believe with all my heart that I will always value this connection greatly – in other words, that I will always love Kathy.

But even if the unthinkable happened and we were separated, for any number of reasons, the connection we have with each other would still exist. We have shared too much of our lives and our hearts. Dissolving this bond is no longer possible.

I do not think that every connection we have with others implies a loving relationship. But I do believe that everyone we love involves a connection. And we would do well to remember that the straining of these connections only ends up hurting everybody, ourselves included.

Which brings me to my final point; which is, that the loving connections of our lives are gifts from God. And as such, they are not ours to create or destroy on our own account.

“God is love,” declares the Apostle John (1 John 4:8). And as the Prophet Mormon indicated, this special kind of love – the love called charity that is defined as God’s love – is a gift that must be bestowed on us from above (Moroni 7:48).

We have not been entrusted with the disposition of loving connections. This is a privilege retained by a greater power than our own. And this should be obvious to anyone paying much attention to the world we live in. We are not just animals that interact with others of our own species purely by instinct, and then proceed on our merry way. Neither are our interactions with others the mere unconscious calculations so favored by evolutionary psychologists.

We interact with others, and in so doing, we form lasting bonds. And if we follow the direction of Heaven and lose ourselves in the service of others, we cannot help but form a vast network of relationships that will bind us to others forever. And like a grove of giant redwoods that withstand the storms of centuries because of their interlocking roots, we can bind each other together in divine ligands that were made for the eternities.

Maybe you feel that you cannot love or be loved. Perhaps you have convinced yourself that you were born unattractive or are not the romantic type. If you have ever thought this way, you had best think again. Whether or not you love or are capable of being loved is not your decision.

The Hollywood and dime novel version of love is not the whole story – or even the most important one. Most love is very different. A good neighbor loves. So does a thoughtful employer, or neighbor, or friend. A parent loves and so does a teacher. You are loved in more ways than you know. And surprisingly, you love more people than you realize.

It no longer bothers me that Dad didn’t have deep romantic feelings for Mom. He spent most of his life devoted to her. For many years, when Mom was often sick and confined to her bed, he cared for her and never complained. Dad and Mom have been profoundly connected from the start. And they always will be. God has promised that they will. He has promised that Love Abides. 


For a good overview of how love has been understood in the great books, see Chapter 50: Love, in Mortimer J. Adler and William Gorman (eds.) The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World. My copy of Love Abides is in Jaroslav Pelikan’s (ed.) The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1990. The paragraph written by Pope Francis is found on page 48 of The Light of Faith, Lumen Fidei, published this year (2013) by Ignatius Press.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Uncommon Encounters

When was the last time you stumbled upon something uncommon? I mean some thing or some event that is (or was) unlikely? It happened to me just recently. I was travelling along a winding back-country road just east of California’s Salinas Valley when a bald eagle flew over my truck. The sight of its strikingly white head and tail feathers is not an everyday occurrence in these parts, and I got a little excited.

It was obviously intent on where it was going. Its flight was direct and descending. I pulled off of the road to take a closer look just as it swooped down on a juvenile coyote that I just then noticed.

Wow! I thought, as I began fumbling for my camera. This is great. As it turned out, the eagle decided against grabbing the coyote. The young canine saw it coming and was ready to put up a fight. At the last minute, the eagle flew off in another direction and both of us – the dog and I – watched it fly away.

For several minutes after that, the coyote canted back and forth across the narrow valley. It was clearly agitated and, despite my proximity, it continued looking back in the direction of the eagle. It kept acting this way for several minutes, even after I could no longer see the eagle in the sky. I felt a little guilty being so happy when the poor coyote was so upset.

The truth is that I get excited over every coyote that I see. I might see half a dozen or more every year but it still gives me a thrill. And seeing a bald eagle is even more exciting. I am lucky if I see one or two a year. I knew that seeing them both together, in such an unlikely juxtaposition, was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I have also come to appreciate that such rarely experienced moments make life so much more enjoyable. Experiences of the uncommon and the rare remain in our minds and hearts. They are the stories we tell at parties and to our children and grandchildren. Sharing them with others very often creates a bond between those experiencing them together. Is it any wonder that sacred texts insist on the fact that holiness is uncommon – or that God Himself requires us never to refer to His handiwork as common?

The Apostle Peter, referring to the dietary restrictions in the Law of Moses declared that, “I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” And then the author to the Epistle to the Hebrews states that (referring to Christ) He is “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens…”

What is there, exactly, between these apparently unrelated things – I mean between the uncommon, the clean and the holy? For starters, maybe it would be best to look at what it actually means to be rare or uncommon.

Scientists have come up with a fairly precise vocabulary for unlikely things.  Here is Kevin Gaston’s rather formal definition of rarity: “Rarity is merely the current status of an extant organism which, by any combination of biological or physical factors, is restricted either in numbers or area to a level that is demonstrably less than the majority of other organisms of comparable taxonomic entities.”

This is fairly complex way of saying that, for living things, something could be rare in a couple of different ways. A species could be rare because there are only a few individuals left in the wild. Or it might be rare even though there are still many individuals alive in the wild if they only occur in a restricted place.

An example of the former kind of rarity would be the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) – assuming that it still survives. It probably disappeared from the United States several decades ago, although reports in the Deep South occasionally raise our hopes that some may still survive there. The more realistic possibility, though, is that if it survives at all, it does so only in small numbers in the remote forests of Cuba.

An example of the second kind of rarity might be the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata). This tree is restricted to a fairly small area in coastal California, although it has been bread for lumber and grows, in modified form, in a much larger area. There are still quite a few truly wild Monterey pines left in the tree’s native habitat, but they only occur in a fairly restricted area.

When should an animal or plant be considered rare, or just uncommon? The answer to this apparently simple question is not simple. There is a broad area of overlap. But it isn’t the academic definition of rarity that I wish to discuss. Of course the definitions and the philosophical clarity are important. But this understanding does little to explain the thrill of actually running into something unusual.

The thrill itself is not rational. It is visceral. It starts with a rational awareness, it is true. But then something beyond reason happens when one experiences a real encounter with the uncommon. Let me give an example.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have followed the plight of the California condor. For some reason it’s rarity and its unusual Latin name (Gymnogyps californianus) captured my imagination. I worried about it becoming extinct and followed with great interest the stories of the captive breeding efforts to save it.

In 2010, I was travelling with my friend Steve along Highway One in coastal California. Steve is an accomplished birder and we were hoping to finally spot a condor. At the time of our trip, the breeding program had been successful enough that several dozens of birds had been released into the wild. And some of them were known to be living along the coast.

At one point we had pulled off to the side of the road to look for seals when Steve spotted a couple flying high above us. We got a fairly good look before they disappeared behind a small mountain to the west.

We now knew that we were in the right area and so continued on the lookout as we managed the winding coastal highway. At one particularly steep curve we noticed a small group of cars suddenly stopping just as another condor flew overhead. Then we saw another one, and a third.

We stopped quickly, I grabbed the camera, and we both stumbled out of the truck onto the road, staring at the sky – thankfully there were no other cars passing just then. Something had attracted the rare birds and we found half a dozen of them perched on a rocky outcropping not far down the steep embankment between the road and the Pacific Ocean.

This was an unimaginable thrill for both of us. For me personally, having believed most of my life that I would probably never see this impressive bird, I was both thrilled and half dazed. Could this really be happening? And then, as if to make the moment even more unreal, Steve exclaimed incredulously, “Sam, look, there’s a peregrine falcon off to the right.”

This truly was incredible. The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is another uncommon bird. It had been devastated by the excessive use of DDT years ago and was considered rare throughout my youth. Thankfully, its numbers have been increasing in recent years. But still, I had only seen it one other time, many years before, when an unlikely pair decided to nest on a tall building in downtown Salt Lake City. To see it at that very moment only made me giddier than I already was. It was a sensational experience. 

I am convinced that it is the combination of awareness, and of personal immediate experience that can make uncommon moments sacred. This may seem a bit sacrilegious to those who would restrict sacred things to the purview of religion. My belief is that encounters with the Created world should often be religious experiences of a sort.

Consider the word sacred itself. It comes from the Latin sanctus meaning consecrated, holy, sacred, inviolable. It was used anciently to describe such things as deities, liberty, the dead, emperors, even the Roman senate. 

But our word sanctuary also comes from the same root. While it’s true that we often think of a sanctuary in a temple or a church, it can also be used to describe a place for animals and plants. A sanctuary is a place to protect these creatures from hunting and fishing, etc. It is perfectly proper, both from religious and historical contexts, to refer to created beings as sacred.

And what is maybe even more unusual, there is precedent for considering all of God’s creations in the same light. And the way that this is to be done is to gain a perspective that even common things – like human beings, for example – are really quite unusual after all.

In her book, The Rarest of the Rare, Diane Ackerman writes, “Sometimes it is difficult for us collectors of rare artifacts such as paperweights or buttons or paintings to understand that we ourselves are rare… We are among the rarest of the rare not because of our numbers, but because of the unlikeliness of our being here at all.”

Ackerman is not arguing from a religious context. Biologists that may not recognize any creator other than Mother Nature can still talk about the unlikeliness of mankind. Steven J. Gould (the late evolutionary biologist and essayist from Harvard University) was fond of pointing out that all of life’s many branches were caused by chance events, and that if our evolutionary past were to be replayed, nothing would turn out the same way again.

But of course this is only one perspective. The reality is that we have no first-hand knowledge of much of the Creation. Nor can we rely on scientific inference to provide us with unerring guidance about the past. Some things we will never know as sojourners here below.

But consider the further words of Peter as he recounts in greater detail his vision of why the gospel should be taken to the world: “but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”

I know this seems odd. How can a relatively large mammal (ourselves) numbering in the billions be considered uncommon? Yet if Ackerman can imagine our human uniqueness and call it rare among living things, is there not something to Peter’s realization that all of God’s children are worthy of special notice?

Another way to look at this is to consider the words vulgar or profane. Most of us think that vulgar refers to something crude or boorish. And in fact, these are legitimate definitions of the word. But they aren’t the only ones. In fact vulgar originally had reference to masses of people, or to the language spoken by the common man. The Latin Vulgate – or the Biblia Sacra Vulgata – is an early translation of the Bible into the common language of ancient Rome.

The word profane – referring to irreverence or blasphemy – can also refer to common or vulgar things. In many ways, profanity is the improper relegation of sacred things to common use – speaking of deeply meaningful religious realities in an offhanded or disrespectful way.

Given this religious and biological perspective, it soon becomes clear that most of us are guilty of a chronic and of a crass profanity. I mean that we look upon sacred beings – I mean other people and even sadly upon ourselves – as if we were just so many warm bodies.

This happens because of our failing to grasp the first part of the two-fold path to the sacred (I mean that we fail to be aware of what we see). When I pulled off to the side of the road to watch a bald eagle, I did so because I knew that I was seeing something unusual. While the remarkable natural scene was being played out, a few other cars drove by without noticing anything at all. It is this lack of awareness that makes us miss the sacred – that makes our world so profane.

Years ago, while driving along Highway 40 in western Colorado, Kathy and I happened upon a crackle of Mormon crickets. Many of them were engorged from feeding and their bodies were full of nutritious morsels that would be allocated to their offspring.

The adult females, in particular, were fat and each carried a long egg-laying blade (called an ovipositor) at the end of its abdomen. As a group they hopped and scuttled over the ground and into the tender vegetation that covers the high Colorado Desert in the spring.

Some of the crickets had started to cross the road only to be run-over by passing vehicles. Other crickets, eager to benefit from these flattened storehouses of food, were then moving into the road to eat them. Many of these crickets would also get run over, and soon the highway became slick with dead cannibalistic crickets.

Kathy and I stopped to see what was going on. When I discovered the crickets, I quickly grabbed a few and plopped them into a bottle of alcohol. They were fairly easy to catch because they don’t have wings. I was thrilled (I guess you can sort of see the pattern here). Mormon crickets are not very commonly seen.

They have become part of the history of the Inter-Mountain West because of the damage they caused to the crops of the Mormon settlers. There are a handful of accounts from the mid-19th Century telling of millions of these crickets devouring the sorely needed crops of pioneer families. 

In desperation, these inexperienced farmers prayed for relief whereupon hundreds (perhaps thousands) of gulls descended on the crickets en-masse. Accounts tell of the birds engorging themselves to the point of regurgitation, only to return to the arthropod feast and eat some more. There is a monument to these avian miracles on Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

And, for whatever reason, the efficiency of the gulls seems to gain even more traction because nobody sees the crickets anymore. Most members of the Mormon Church know the story of the Mormon crickets, but very few could ever recognize one of the insects even if they saw it. The reason seems clear enough. Almost nobody ever does see one.

They are primarily restricted to the tops of high mountains – above tree-line. I have seen them on a few occasions as I have climbed some of the peaks in Colorado and Utah. But it seems that they only come down into cultivated areas rarely or in a few isolated places.

I have come to look upon the time of our lucky encounter with these insects with soberness. It combined the discovery of an uncommon creature with a sacred tradition. And the result somehow made the whole experience much more poignant.

I don’t believe that we have to be in the presence of something rare to experience this thrill. If this were true, very few of us would ever experience it. Some people may never experience it with living things. Perhaps they know the thrill from seeing an original Rembrandt painting or a rare golden coin. These can all be very exciting.

Finding an uncommon being, however, should be an extra meaningful experience among followers of the Judeo/Christian tradition. The Creation, after all, is part of our theology. A rare painting is not. Seeking them out can be one of life’s great pleasures.

It can also be addicting, although finding them can hardly be predicted. The hope, however, that I might find something unusual often compels me to start looking through maps and planning my next trip only days after I return from my last junket into the wild. I can never get enough. And I think we are made this way for a reason. We are supposed to be inspired by sacred things.


The New Testament references to Peter are in Acts 10:14 and 28. The reference in Hebrews is in Chapter 7, verse 26. On Gaston’s definition of rarity see, What is Rarity?; in, Kunin and Gaston’s The Biology of Rarity, Chapman and Hall, 1997. Ackerman’s quote on rarity from The Rarest of the Rare is in the introduction (on page xviii). You’ll have to excuse me for the phrase “a crackle of Mormon crickets” but I couldn’t resist the urge to use James Lipton’s interesting phrase (and a very appropriate phrase in our case of treaded insects). His book, An Exaltation of Larks, is a wonderful collection of nouns of multitude – or terms of venery as Lipton prefers. For a detailed account of the “Miracle of the gulls” see William Hartley’s “Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: A New Look at an Old Story,” Utah Historical Quarterly 38 (summer 1970): 224-239.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Was Jonah Taken by a Humpback Whale?

The account of Jonah and the whale is one of the most memorable stories in the Bible. To a child, it captures the imagination like the story of Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den, or of Noah gathering all the animals – tame and fierce alike – into the ark. It isn’t a story that one forgets.

As a young biology student, however, I confess that I occasionally had my doubts about some of the details as I began thinking about marine ecology, and especially about the specifics of whale biology. I know that many other Christian thinkers have had their doubts as well. Many of us have come to understand the story in metaphorical ways.

This is easy to do because the New Testament almost invites this kind of interpretation. In the Gospel of Matthew Jonah’s three days and three nights inside the whale foreshadowed the three days and three nights that Christ spent inside the earth prior to His resurrection (Matthew 12: 39-40). Many devout thinkers have interpreted this to mean that Jonah didn’t really get swallowed by a whale.

This is about all the thought I was prone to give the account. On the few occasions when I found myself needing to tell the story to children, I tended to let somebody else give the details. I just wasn’t very comfortable explaining them literally. In passing years, I didn’t pay much attention to the Book of Jonah at all. And then things changed.

I was reading Roger Payne’s fascinating book Among Whales. Dr. Payne is considered by many to be the world’s leading authority on these giant and intriguing creatures. He has spent most of his life watching them, listening to them, and otherwise informing himself about them from the vast literature that continues to accumulate.

I was reading Payne’s book without a thought in the world of Jonah. I was reading it because I love to read, and because Payne’s book is very worthwhile reading. Imagine my surprise when Payne mentions, almost in passing, that an acquaintance of his was once almost swallowed by a whale.  

Here is the passage. “I have a friend who was studying humpback whales in Alaska when one of them rose beneath his boat. The next thing he knew he and the boat were inside its widely opened mouth, a situation that only lasted for a second as the whale was apparently as surprised as he and instantly backed off. But he observed that when his [small boat] was in the whale’s mouth it was not grounded on the whale’s jaws but was floating freely, with water under the keel.”

This story was mentioned to demonstrate the very large capacity of a baleen whale’s mouth – or more properly, its buccal cavity. This cavity can make up over a third of the whales body. Its immensity can be appreciated in an interesting picture of a full-grown right whale skeleton next to Roy Chapman Andrews in the American Museum of Natural History. The man is maybe as tall as the whale’s closed mouth. And the buccal cavity extends even deeper into the animal. More than a dozen men could fit inside such a place.  

In fact the large mouth of baleen whales can be quite a bit larger than even this picture shows. In a recent study documented in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, baleen whale mouths were shown to increase allometrically. This means that as a whale increases in bodily size, the size of the head grows disproportionately larger. This kind of growth is more commonly seen, for example, in the mandibles of stag beetles. Normal or undersized males have fairly non-descript mandibles projecting forward from their heads. Somewhat larger alpha males, on the other hand, can have massively larger mandibles. The size of a baleen whales mouth is certainly not a criterion for dismissing the story of Jonah.

These large mouths of baleen whales (including humpback whales) make them quite a bit different than the typical animal most of us imagine when we think of whales. They don’t have teeth like Moby Dick and are not shaped with the high forehead that is typical of most children’s storybooks about whales. Instead, baleen whales have a large “jaw” with long fleshy wrinkles that are capable of greatly expanding.

I recently spent an afternoon looking at pictures of whales from Bibles and children’s story books about Jonah. There is quite a variety of sea creatures depicted. And no one clearly accepted species predominates. I expect that this stems from our general cultural lack of taxonomic precision. When the Old Testament says that a fish swallowed Jonah, and the New Testament says that a whale did, it’s obvious that we’re somewhat less than clear on the species involved.

Walker’s Mammals of the World recognizes 79 species in the Order Cetacea (which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) worldwide. When large true (bony) fish are added to the list, and perhaps even sharks, the possible list of candidates becomes quite large. It’s no wonder that nobody seems to have decided in favor of any one species.

Gustave Doré’s painting Jonah Cast Forth by the Whale is perhaps the most famous painting of the story. It is depicted in family Bibles around the world. Despite the title of the painting, Doré pictures a creature with fins and a tail that are clearly those of a bony fish, albeit a large one.

Another depiction of a true fish (again, despite the title) is Giulio Pippi’s Jonah and the Whale. The creature in this painting continues with the bony fish theme but with an exaggerated mouth. And the creature itself looks a bit monstrous, perhaps reminiscent of the fear that ancient people’s often had of unknown sea creatures.

Children’s books and paintings, though equally difficult to categorize, do seem to favor whales over fishes. A typical example is Jonah and the Whale by Roberta Rivera. This is clearly a depiction of a sperm whale with its large head and relatively small mouth lined with teeth.

It’s obvious that we haven’t decided one way or another about what kind of whale swallowed Jonah. The truth is that we haven’t really given much thought at all about the different kinds of whales that live in the world’s oceans and seas. I remember some time ago using the word “rorqual” while playing a word game. It is a general word for baleen whales – and not uncommonly used among student of marine biology – yet nobody had heard of it before.

The incident made me aware of just how little most of us know about marine taxonomy. If it’s true that most of us don’t even know the names of the trees in our neighborhood – and we don’t; and if it’s also true that your neighbor has no idea of the kinds of birds (even very common birds) singing in his own yard; what is the likelihood that any one of us will know the kinds of whales in a distant sea? It’s not very likely at all.

But, in truth, our general ignorance of whales has not been restricted to non-biologists. For hundreds of years, the only real knowledge we had of these amazing creatures was gained from whalers and from the occasional dead animal that washed onto a beach. And this knowledge tended to be mixed with older fears of unknown monsters of the deep.

If you combine this level of ignorance with our modern disregard of sacred texts, it’s little wonder that most educated people find the story of a man being swallowed by a whale, and then surviving, unlikely. But to be honest, this doubt has not been grounded in real whale biology. It has been based on our own imagination.

My argument is that we are beginning to learn enough about these marine animals to conjecture more thoughtfully about the whale that captured Jonah. In particular, the feeding behavior and respiratory biology of humpback whales makes them a likely candidate. Let me explain further. 

As I mentioned above, the large buccal capacity of humpback whales is an adaptation that allows them to capture vast amounts of small crustaceans (known collectively as krill) and fish which make up their diet. This is done when a whale moves forward through the water with its mouth open. The expanding jaw allows the whale to pull in water instead of only pushing it in front of its mouth.

Imagine trying to catch fish with a bucket. It just doesn’t work. Using the bucket below water only pushes water and, unless a fish gets confused and actually swims into the bucket, the effort is a waste of time. The expansion of a baleen whale’s mouth corrects for this problem by actually pulling water – with accompanying krill – into its mouth. It was probably a whale feeding in this way that picked up Payne’s friend by accident.

Once the baleen whale’s mouth is full, it begins pushing water out through its teeth, somewhat like a boy I once knew who could project a stream of water through the spacing of his front teeth. A baleen whale does this through teeth that are specifically adapted to this purpose. The teeth are long and thin and spaced just right to let water through while keeping the krill inside – acting like a giant sieve.

This giant sieve is called a whalebone or baleen – hence the name of these kinds of whales. You may have heard of whalebones being used in previous centuries in the manufacture of corsets. The long, thin and flexible nature of these bones was ideal for upper body support. In fact the popularity of whalebone corsets proved troublesome to baleen whales as their populations dwindled from over-hunting.

But I digress. The spacing of these long teeth is such that small animals can move through them into the mouth but then are unable to exit because of a sophisticated network of long thin fibers that grow on the inside of the whalebone. Sometimes baleen whales will feed by just moving through the water with its baleen exposed. At other times, it feeds by actively taking in water with its mouth agape.

One of the most interesting behaviors of the humpback whale, especially relating to the story of Jonah, is the activity known to biologists as lunge-feeding. This is a form of feeding that often brings whales to the surface from hundreds of feet below.

Often, the lunge-feeding whale rises in a fairly slow spiral pattern while blowing a cloud of small bubbles through the narrow openings of the baleen. This rising cloud does something unusual to small fish and krill. It confuses them and keeps them from swimming away.

This seems to work because the cloud of bubbles actually decreases the density of water. Imagine a small boat that floats easily on the water (floating because the water is denser than the boat). Now imagine that this same boat were to be dropped through the air. It would obviously fall because it is denser than air. A rising cloud of air bubbles has the effect of creating a place that is somewhere between the density of water and the density of air. A boat, if floating in a tall narrow tank of water, will sink if bubbles are infused into the tank, even though it is lighter than water. It isn’t lighter than the water and air mix of a cloud of bubbles.

A humpback whale forcing bubbles through its teeth creates a sort of gravity field that must make small creatures feel like they are falling. Instead of swimming quickly away they freeze and the whale swimming up from below has a concentrated mouthful of food waiting that it captures by opening its mouth wide as it nears the surface.

This form of lunge-feeding does something else, though, that intrigues me about the Biblical account. It temporarily blinds the whale to anything moving on the surface. This would likely be an important consideration if, in fact, it was a baleen whale that swallowed Jonah. Baleen whales would normally never capture a human, or any other creature of comparable size. Their body is just not built to be able to eat such a thing. So an active form of feeding that is both blind and brings a whale to the surface – lunge-feeding that is – becomes a real possibility in the case of Jonah.

Another scenario of how Jonah might have been swallowed, and the one that most of us imagine, involves a toothed whale, like the sperm whale. These whales actively hunt other animals, capturing and masticating them in their (relatively smaller) mouth and then swallowing them. This sort of behavior is one of the reasons many people tend to disbelieve in the literalness of the Book of Jonah. For my part, I could not imagine anybody living within the highly acidic stomach of any mammal (even a giant stomach like that of a whale) without air for three days.

This is one of the reasons why I think the humpback whale is a much more likely candidate. It has an extremely large buccal cavity that is mostly free of stomach acids and, even more significantly, it contains a supply of oxygenated air.

This air in a whale’s mouth is a bit unusual. Whales, unlike other mammals don’t breathe through their mouth. They have a breathing hole on top of their head – the blowhole – that leads directly to the lungs, bypassing the mouth. A toothed whale, like a sperm whale, never needs to open its mouth to bring in oxygen. If some air-breathing creature were ever to be eaten alive, it would not be able to breathe in such a place.

But humpback whales are different. Their unique form of bubble feeding begins by air moving into their mouths. And it is the movement of this air through the whalebone, with its narrow openings, that create the cloud of small bubbles that works to confuse their food. How the air actually got to the whale’s mouth was a mystery until just a few years ago.

Writing in the Anatomical Record, researchers Reidenberg and Laitman reported a trough-shaped epiglottis in humpback whales that can “facilitate channeling air from the larynx to the oral cavity.” This mechanism is basically an opening in the air tube that connects the blowhole with the lungs and can be opened when the whale needs air in its mouth. When a whale is actively feeding using bubble clouds, there would be a significant amount of air moving into the mouth.

This to me is a remarkable combination of traits that make the story of Jonah much more interesting. It appears that a man could very well survive in the back of a humpback whale’s mouth for days. Not that it would be a pleasant experience, far from it, but the oxygen needed to survive would be available.

Some may argue that surviving in a whale’s mouth is contrary to the Biblical text, which says clearly that Jonah survived in the “belly of a fish”. My answer is two-fold. First, the length of the humpback’s buccal cavity is so long that it extends well into the area that might be considered the “belly” in other organisms. Second, if you open your dictionary you will find that the word “belly” can refer to the entire underside of the body of certain vertebrates likes snakes and fish. I don’t see this as a contradiction.

Another possible criticism that occasionally comes up is that whales don’t occur in the Mediterranean Sea, where the story of Jonah would certainly have taken place. This argument may be true today for some times of the year but it isn’t valid overall. Because of large-scale over-hunting of whales in modern times, humpback whales no longer frequent waters that they formerly would have. Their numbers are too few. Yet even today, humpback whales do find their way to the Mediterranean Sea during their breeding season. They don’t breed or raise young there, but they do move from deeper water and begin swimming near land as they work their way to their breeding grounds. It is presumed that the greater number of whales in former centuries would have seen many more whales there than we see today. Walker’s reference book of the mammals of the world indicates that the humpback whale “M[egaptera]. novaeangliae, occurs in all oceans and adjoining seas of the world.” 

I am also intrigued by Diane Ackerman’s theory that it was the sound of the humpback whale’s song – a unique sound among whales – that caused the ancient Greek sailors so much fear. Sailing throughout the Mediterranean Sea, these sailors were convinced that mythical creatures called Sirens would lure them to their death with their eerie songs. Perhaps it was the song of the humpback whale that was responsible for this.

All things considered, the story of Jonah being taken by a whale is still remarkable – and perhaps incredible to many. It doesn’t help that poorly documented accounts of modern whalers being swallowed by whales get repeated and rightfully criticized by skeptics. And then there are the outright spoofs that are so easy to find on the internet. It is not surprising that a thoughtful Bible-revering student would doubt such a story.

Like most historic accounts from ancient times, the details of Jonah’s story are not known. I have no intention of insisting that he was swallowed by a humpback whale. And yet I have to admit that I am pleasantly surprised by what our modern studies of these fascinating creatures reveals. Far from invalidating the Biblical story, they continue to render it an increasing plausibility. 

But this is also a cautionary tale. It’s quite easy to disregard many stories found in sacred texts because they appear to be quite fanciful. With our perceived modern objectivity and expertise, stories like Jonah and the whale have been quickly discounted as nothing more than fairy tales. Often it takes a bit more probing to find that these stories have more to them than a superficial reading with quickly formed assumptions might suggest. It should make us ponder a little bit when we insist on understanding sacred texts with a presumption of modern superiority. The ancients weren’t as stupid and gullible as we sometimes make them out to be.


Roger Payne’s Among Whales was published by Scribner (1995). The reference to his friend’s engulfment is on page 49. The picture of Roy Chapman Andrews next to the right whale is from Walker’s Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition, Volume II by Ronald M. Nowak (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1991). On whale head allometry see Goldbogen, Potvin and Shadwick (2010) Skull and buccal cavity allometry increase mass-specific engulfment capacity in fin whales, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 277 (no. 1683): 861-868. On air movement into the humpback whale’s mouth see “Blowing bubbles: an aquatic adaptation that risks protection of the respiratory tract in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)” by J.S. Reidenberg and J.T. Laitman in Anatomical Record (June,2007) Volume 290(6): 569-580. Diane Ackerman’s note on Greek Sirens is in The Moon by Whale Light published by Random House, in 1991.