The year 2017 marks the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. October 31, 1517 is traditionally believed as the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, which started the wave of theological movements all throughout Europe.
To commemorate this quincentennial, my church is doing a series on the Protestant Reformers, which syncs well with my current preoccupation with timelines. I was curious to see how the lives of the Reformers overlapped each other, since they certainly influenced each other’s work and ministry.
This Reformers timeline is based on the names mentioned in the book the Great Controversy. It’s by no means the most comprehensive list, but it transcends the 16th century Reformers to a few individuals who were precursors to the Reformation and to a few who influenced Christianity in the succeeding centuries. Here it is.
(Click image to enlarge)
A few interesting things to note:
In 1517, Martin Luther was about 34 years old, younger than I initially imagined.
Most of the other Reformers were also in their 20s and early 30s. Their protests would continue for the rest of their lives.
From this chart, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were executed (burned at the stake) together.
These Reformers were in different countries, England, Bohemia, Germany, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Scotland. William Miller was in America. I probably should have differentiated these locations in the plot. Next time.
Now the interesting part for me, and the whole reason of doing these timelines, is to combine different historical narratives in one visualization. In the image below, I added William Wilberforce, the English MP who championed the abolition of the slave trade (a personal hero), to see who were his contemporaries. One of the last letters that John Wesley wrote was for Wilberforce, encouraging him in his work to abolish the slave trade. John Newton, a former captain of a slave ship, author of the popular hymn “Amazing Grace”, was also Wilberforce’s mentor (also on the plot).
It’s interesting to see that William Miller, a preacher during the Second Great Awakening in America, lived through 12 presidents. He died during the short presidency of Zachary Taylor. William Wilberforce corresponded with some of America’s founding fathers. There are probably many more fun facts that can be unearthed from this timeline. If you know any, let me know!
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Trevor was born during apartheid, which, in his words, “was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control.” He grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. Being a mixed child–from a white father and black mother–he was literally born a crime, because the law prohibited interracial marriage or “carnal intercourse” between blacks and whites. For most of his childhood, he navigated life as an outsider, since the way he looked and how he was brought up did not align with the typical constructs of the South African sub-societies. A chameleon was what he called–and still does–himself.
Using Language to Change Perceptions
Yet one poignant insight that he gleaned from his outsider-ness was the power of language in “hacking” racism. Apartheid did not only separate black and white people; it separated every identifiable skin color and subculture to weaken its opposition. Crediting his mother, who really is the heroine of his book, he says, “Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”
If you’ve seen any of Trevor’s stand up, you’ll see that he’s incredibly skilled in accents and imitations. He speaks something like six or seven languages.
I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”
In another instance, a group of guys intended to mob him because they thought he was white. But as they plotted in their language, Trevor, who understood what they said, replied in kind and suggested that they all mob someone else together.
They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.
Language, Connections, and Trust
Language is key in defining a tribe.
Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.
Yet, he continues, language’s power to divide can easily be reversed.
The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He’s different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, “Eh, I don’t trust this guy.” “But he’s a scientist.” “In Mexican science, maybe. I don’t trust him.” However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he…is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”
Reflecting on my own experience with languages, I realized that I was spared weird looks and condescending stares when I moved to the US because I was reasonably trained in English. I don’t recall an incident where an English speaker had to slooowlyy spell out each word they’re saying with his head tipped down, with that wide-eyed, condescending look that I see a lot in situations related to immigration or airport security. At least, this act won’t last long because I could meet them where they’re at in comprehension and speed of pronunciation. But certainly, I see it a lot when I travel with other non-native English speakers who may not be as quick in understanding the rapid speaking pace of a native speaker. It annoys me tremendously.
Incidents like this reveal the deep interconnection between language and trust. People naturally don’t trust those who are different than them. But a common language, even though skin-deep differences exist, can override that prejudice and engender trust.
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”
This is the second post in an article series on individuality. Read the first here. This post is for those curious about what individuality means in the Judeo-Christian perspective, even if you don’t subscribe to it.
“That’s so him.” “Totally something she’d do!” “Who would’ve thought of that?!” These acknowledgements of individuality—what makes you, you—are not foreign to us. The existence of individuality in the human experience is indisputable.
Where does our individuality come from?
Well, this is a worldview question, with answers as numerous as the beliefs that exist on Earth. This post is specifically about the Judeo-Christian perspective and its regard of mankind and individuality. Though you may not subscribe to it, I’m inviting you to empathize and gain an understanding of how those that do see individuality from their point of view.
Mankind as An Image of the Divine
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, a person’s individuality is anchored to the very subject the whole religious system is about: God. The subject of individuality is front and center in the grand opening of its sacred text.
Creation, the beginning of the world, opens the Hebrew Bible in the first chapter of Genesis. It’s a much-debated chapter, but let’s set debates aside for a moment and consider the text through the lens of creativity, to see the narrative in the light of a creative process.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” it begins. The chapter narrates the creation of the world in six days, which builds up to the creation of mankind in the sixth. The text says,
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’So God created man in Hisownimage; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
Mankind is patterned according to God’s image, which is intriguing, because God prohibits the making of images, explicitly stated in the Ten Commandments. Other biblical stories show that mankind is in danger of carving a rock, assembling wood, or creating buildings, even if they were initially made for God, and worshipping these things instead of God. The biblical prophets write against this over and over again. There was to be no idol worshipped in place of Him, because no one thing can adequately represent the fullness of His character and glory. Nothing is big enough to fully represent who He is. But, in mankind there is an exception.
“And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star. The one symbol of God is man, every man. God Himself created man in His image.”
A person, a human being, is viewed with very high regard, because he is an image of the divine.
“Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah. Its holiness is not man’s achievement; it is a gift of God rather than something attained through merit. Man must therefore be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the King of Kings.“
This image of the divine is not limited to one person, group, or nation. It is present in every single person.
“…not one man or one particular nation but all men and all nations are endowed with the likeness of God… the divine likeness is something all men share.”
This foundation is also the Judeo-Christian basis of the equality of all men, the anchor of justice and how we ought to treat one another.
“This is a conception of far-reaching importance to biblical piety. What it implies can hardly be summarized. Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”
Power to Think and to Do
The concept mankind being an image of the divine is rich with meaning. One aspect of this is the capability to create, which is demonstrated by the Creator Himself. It is the capability to invent, to see beyond what is into what could be, and to work towards that destination one step at a time.
“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.”
The power to think and transform that thought into reality is the most baffling and fascinating trait of humanity. It mirrors the divine pattern as told in the Creation narrative.
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.And God saw the light, thatit wasgood; and God divided the light from the darkness.God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.”
First there’s a thought, then words. The words become reality. And God sees what happens and calls it good. Finally, He names what He has just made. What is this if not the core of a creative process?
“The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen. Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions.”
Those we admire, leaders of the world, makers and changers of society, display this power of individuality—to think and to act. They are thinkers for themselves, not reflectors of other people’s thoughts. They are masters of their circumstances.
Individuality and Creativity
In the last post, I emphasized that individuality is an asset in creative processes, in works that have no set to-do instructions, in the making of something new (as opposed to imitating an existing creation). Where there’s no other guide, individuality, your power to think and to do, is your only resource. Indeed, it is in these types of original work that individuality shines forth the most.
Consider this. When God chose to write His opening act, His first introduction to the world, His grand entrance, His chance for a first impression in the first chapter of the Bible, He chose a creative story, a narrative of Him engaging in creative work.
In that first chapter, God is the sole agent, the ultimate actor, and the decision maker. He stares at His blank canvas, a void and shapeless world, and He begins that journey of creating something new.
I wonder if this creative process is also a discovery, something like the times when we engage in creative endeavors and surprise ourselves at what comes out. Maybe there’s an elevated, divine version of this, because at the end of each creation day, God sees what He has done, pausing for a moment of reflection, evaluation, consideration, and says that it is good. It is almost as if He doesn’t completely know if it would turn out good, at least not as predictable as mass printing labels from a manufacturing process. The artist sees and is satisfied with what He has carved that day.
It is easy to take stories like these for granted, to miss the essence and mystery of the creative process. We take it for granted because when we read stories of how inventors create, we already see the results. Thus we think it’s inevitable, a classic case of hindsight bias. Of course the plane should look that way, it’s obvious! Whereas if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Wright brothers, going forward in time, experimenting and trying out designs, the final product could have taken a different shape amidst the thousands of decisions they had to make.
We already know how important the sun is when we read the fourth day of creation. The trees are already outside our windows when we read about the third day, so it does not occur to us that trees did not really have to work that way. Things didn’t have to work the way they do now, because the creator started with a blank canvas. Someone decided where to put the stars, the waters, the sky, and the eyes. They were design decisions, made by an individual with thoughts and intent, with power to accomplish them.
Most importantly, there was freedom. God had full freedom to choose how He would shape the world among numerous options. He could have chosen a million other combinations, just like a writer could start his book a thousand different ways, a painter beginning with a thousand different strokes. The shape that we see at the end is the culmination of a nonlinear process, the artist’s individuality, mind and heart at work, which is all hidden in that final painting.
It is no small matter that God’s grand entrance—a story of His creativity—is also humanity’s most baffling trait. Stories of human creativity and inventions inspire us. The creators of the world, the change-makers, are those who know how to mine their individuality.
If mankind is made in God’s image, and the first thing He wants us to know about Himself is His creativity, then it must mean that He wants us to employ our individuality and creativity to its fullest measure. Could it be that in engaging in a creative process, we are mirroring divinity? Anyone who has engaged in creating something must know the magical wonder stored within the process, from inspiration to fruition. Could it be that Genesis 1 is an invitation for us to write our own creation stories?