The world is trying to absorb the terrible violence in Paris last week, and that on the heels of the deadly Russian airline bombing, additional layers of mayhem in humanity’s long and depressing chronicle. What deeds people do in the name of faith! And it’s not just religious faith. Idolatrous faith in the “isms” – communism, socialism, nationalism – is responsible for a higher body count than religious fanatics ever have been.
As the holidays approach, the West is poised to both celebrate and ponder the Judeo-Christian narrative that forms its heart. And it’s one with fascinating ties to the cultural behemoth of ancient times, the stunning legacy of Egypt. It lives in our imagination in a way that many other venerable lost civilizations do not. Part of the explanation is monumentality and art- the paintings, pyramids, temples, jewelry, adornments, hieroglyphics and all the rest- the legacy of a superpower that was the New York-Hollywood-Washington DC of its time, with a little bit of the Vatican thrown in for good measure. But part of it lies in the chance encounters with those pesky Hebrew tribes who, at the time, must have appeared to be just another insignificant player in the power politics of the eastern Mediterranean.
Modern Egypt is one of the arenas in the current battle between the idolatrous “isms” and the forces of life. That nation’s forbears have a powerful lesson to teach the whole world. Their theologies don’t make much sense anymore (dang-no more cat gods!), but they posited a powerful sense of harmony with the living and created world. Of course, the landscape of the Nile helped to drive the lesson home. John Romer, in his delightful documentary Ancient Lives, explores the world of the temple builders of Thebes. The monuments were set apart from the Nile and its life-giving waters. They are grand and impressive and probably necessary, and yet arid and dead. A suitable perspective for human ambition, even if it purports to speak for the divine will.