The Worlds Of Christopher Columbus

There are few historical figures as controversial as Christopher Columbus. If public debate since the five hundredth anniversary of his first voyage is an accurate indication, how one sees Columbus is not a matter of historical analysis but rather one’s personal political views.

It is already difficult enough to piece together the details of Columbus’ life given his lost original journal, the biases of early biographers, and the absence of documents, but when you interject contemporary political posturing into the historical debate, it becomes impossible. One side wants to blame Columbus for all the horrors of the modern world, and the other side wants to give Columbus the credit for all of the advances of the modern world.

Was Columbus a hero or a villain? One can not even begin to answer that question without an understanding of Columbus’ historical period. That is probably why William and Carla Phillips title their book The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. It is as much a biography of an age as it is of a man with Columbus being really just a case study of the age.

The Phillips never come out and directly answer the question as to Columbus’ status as a hero or villain. However, after reading the book, one gets the sense that if they were asked directly they would reply that he was neither; he was human with both strengths and weaknesses, and as such he was neither a mythic hero nor an evil villain.

Columbus had perseverance, but he was stubborn. Unlike the mythic Columbus the human Columbus was not the first to conceive of reaching the East from the West, nor was he the only one to believe the Earth was round- most people did. However, as the Phillips write he “was the first, not to conceive the plan, but to persevere until he found backing for it” (p.104).

Perseverance in Columbus sometimes went too far, though, and it turned into stubbornness. This hurt him at times and was almost fatal at others. For example, Columbus was convinced that Asia was closer than it was. Even when more educated geographers disagreed, he stubbornly refused to change his view; this could have been fatal. If there had been no land between Europe and Asia, Columbus and his crew would have died. It was his error that inspired him to proceed with his plan (p.100).

This error also demonstrates another of Columbus’ flaws- his lack of judgment. This lack of judgment shows itself in several ways. One example was when Columbus was faced with the rebellion led by Roldan. In settling with Roldan, Columbus granted the labor services of chiefs to his men. This far exceeded his authority to grant land grants according to merit (p.223).

This is also connected to Columbus’ lack of judgment with slavery. He consistently displeased the crown by taking slaves or proposing to take them and sell them. This contributed to his fall from grace as it angered Queen Isabella (p. 239).

Columbus may have lacked judgment at times, but the other side of that coin is he was intelligent. He was not intelligent like Thomas Jefferson, though, more like Abraham Lincoln in that he learned what he needed to know in order to do what he dreamed of doing. Psychologists today recognize several different types of intelligence: abstract, rhythmic, artistic, mechanical, physical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. It seems that Columbus was at least intelligent mechanically, physically, and interpersonally.

That he had interpersonal intelligence leads directly to another pair of Columbus’ traits; he was a good salesman but overly ambitious. That he was a good salesman seems obvious. He convinced Ferdinand and Isabella to back him and to continue to back him. He was also able to convince many ordinary men (not fleeing criminals) to sail with him, and he was able to sell the idea of developing the New World, although not always honestly, but more on that later.

Also the way he used the eclipse to gain the cooperation of the Jamaicans can best be described by a word associated with salesmen (and politicians if there is a difference), and that is slick. On the other hand he hungered for wealth and status. The Phillips suggest it was this drive that prevented him from writing about his early life as his family was of humble origin (p.87). It also kept him from marrying Beatriz and thereby legitimizing his son Hernando.

It was this drive that acted as a catalyst for one of Columbus’ most serious flaws- his deceitfulness, of himself and others. He constantly mislead the crown as to the resources and profitability of the New World. The Phillips describe one of his letters as “a tissue of exaggerations, misconceptions, and outright lies” (p. 185). He played up all the good and downplayed the bad (accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative as the old Johnny Mercer song goes).

He used evidence to suit his purposes, and if there was no evidence, he made it up. It was this deceit combined with his ambition that caused him to set up unfulfillable expectations that eventually caused him a great deal of trouble.

The Phillips’ view of Columbus can be summed up by saying that Columbus was a good sailor (sailsman if you will pardon the pun) but a terrible administrator. All of the traits that made him a good explorer (perseverance, intelligence, salesmanship, optimism, and religious belief) made him a bad administrator (poor judgment, stubborn, egotistical, deceitful and ambitious).

The Phillips write that “when reality intervened, Columbus needed the practical skills of a manager and administrator; not only did he lack those skills, but he seemed to lack the temperament to develop them” (p.186). They also, after giving a list of Columbus’ strengths, write that “Columbus was always more interested in continued exploration than in the humdrum satisfactions of careful administration, and the new tasks constituted a challenge that he was unwilling or unable to meet”(p.194).

The Phillips’ account of Columbus is not like most of the information I have read about him. They do not try to use historical evidence to shore up their own ideological view. Instead they try to see Columbus and his times as clearly as possible as he and they really were.

It is hard to disagree with them. I found it interesting that while they discussed slavery and disease they only discussed it as it occurred at a particular time without trying to make any broad generalizations about it. Why? Because it is pointless and misguided.

No one can take the blame or the credit for all that has been laid at Columbus’ feet, and rather than credit or blame one man, it is much more interesting and exciting to try to see the big picture of the times and how so many advances seemed to converge at the same time to facilitate Columbus’ voyages. It’s like trying to put together a difficult jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture.

If you accomplish the task of completing a historical jigsaw puzzle, it’s much more rewarding and information yielding than just asserting a position because it supports your personal political agenda. The Phillips put together a good puzzle, and I think they hit the nail on the head.

Columbus was like most people. He had strengths and weaknesses, and when he was doing a job that utilized his gifts he did a good job, but when he attempted to do the things he had no aptitude for, he failed miserably.

Sinning Against Our Brothers (Late Commentary on Da Vinci)

When I first heard about The Da Vinci Code, I said “That’s a straight-up rip-off of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.”  It’s not a new idea or a very original one; it’s just plotted differently.  If you can’t succeed with “history” or literature (The Last Temptation of Christ) then pop culture is where you sow your seeds.  And the crop has been bumper, indeed!

At first, I thought that only people not very familiar with the Bible or Christian history and theology would be “troubled” by it, except for the honest and decent members of Opus Die, a very good organization, and the only reason I didn’t want to see the movie was that I want to financially support a movie that slanders my Lord and directly implies that the entire foundation of my faith–the Divinity of Christ and His death and resurrection– is a sham.  That’s still a good reason, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

It makes of it merely a personal financial decision without seeing the dimensions of knowledge formation or responsibility to my brothers and sisters in Christ.  In recent conversations with Christians who’ve seen the movie, when I related the above argument to them, they, and others have said the same in print, replied that it was merely fiction, a novel, and good entertainment at that, nothing more, nothing to kick up a fuss over.

And Mein Kampf was “just a book,” right?  Few things force me to sit down and think through my positions like the claim that entertainment is merely entertainment.  It’s not mere fiction.  Ideas have consequences, a concept few in the West believe anymore.  Memes [1] get generated, seeds get planted and harvest are sowed, either for God or the Enemy.

It’s not the Christian I worry about here (I’ll get to them below); it’s the non-Christian.  Imagine a kid growing up in a non-Christian home, daily inundated with the ideas presented incessantly that Christianity is either a sham or a force of evil in the world or both.  The ideas are planted day after day year after year and that person isn’t exposed to any alternative.  When he or she gets older, the beliefs are hardened into clichés requiring no thought.  A worker in God’s vineyard sows seeds, but they are immediately chocked out by weeds.

We all “know” things that aren’t so.  Just look at the urban legends in e-mails. The entire premise behind advertising is that it influences.  Last year a study conducted by the University of Connecticut and published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that there was a 1% increase in the number of drinks consumed per month for each additional alcohol advertisement seen by teens.

The Prevention Research Center tells us that “”Young people have well developed beliefs about alcohol, even before they have experience with drinking.  Although parents, peers, and other environmental influences are important in shaping these beliefs, and ultimately drinking behaviors, alcohol advertising may also be a source through which children and adolescents learn about alcohol.”

“Young people have well developed beliefs…before they have experience,” that quote is true and telling.  It’s why our Scripture commands us: “teach [God’s law] to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deut 11:19) The “meme” that orthodox Christianity is both a sham and an evil is ubiquitous these days. Combine it with the belief in mere entertainment and the belief that ideas don’t have consequences and the result is toxic.

When little or no attention or credit is given to the positive role Christianity has played in the development of the institutions and practices of a free society, when what little is written (like Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadance) is read by few, and mostly by those who already agree, when ideas go unchallenged, when the topics of greatest concern are gas prices or access to cheap broadband, then the enemy slips in “like a thief in the night.”

If something as banal as advertising wields influence, how much more so does fiction?  Fiction has been used for centuries to powerfully convey serious ideas (“If you prick us will we not bleed?”).  In fact, for those who don’t believe, the Bible itself is considered fiction.  Consider Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom Be Found where he argues that Job is part of wisdom literature in the same vein as Shapespeare and Homer.

There’s a  Revlon ad showing the back of a topless woman in bed, being photographed by the man in her bed, with the voice-over saying, “If you convince her the pictures are only for your personal collection, you’re a Mitchum man.”   Is that “just a commercial” or is it demeaning to women because it presents them as mere sex objects to be manipulated and lied to for a man’s pleasure?  Is the rap song that chants “face down, @ up, that’s the way I like to f__k” just entertainment, or has the whole hip-hop culture contributed to the sexualization of our children?  Is Mapplethorpe’s “Piss Christ” just art?  Is “Debbie Does Everyone and His Brother and Sister” just a movie?

I have no animus here, but I can not now or ever accept the argument that something which presents thoughts, concepts, ideas, theories, opinions, beliefs, practices, and moods is just entertainment.

The Eight would have made a better movie.  It was a better book.  The reason The Da Vinci Code was made into a movie was it had an easily recognizable and ready to use “controversy” to generate sales.  I am disappointed that so many people protesting the movie do not see that they are being used.  Hollywood loves a good controversy, making money by manipulating people go see it just to check out what all the fuss is about, but I also respect those challenging the movie for drawing a line and standing athwart cultural trends and yelling “Stop!”

Many of them  have presented thoughtful, well-reasoned challenges to The Da Vinci Code.  I think they’re worth reading, especially if you think that ideas are not at stake here.  In contrast, on the movies side you have unreflective, trite, voices like Ron Howard’s, who pulled out the classic cliche: “If they don’t want to see it, don’t go.”

Let me try that argument on a few other propositions.  If you don’t like smoking in a restaurant, don’t go to that restaurant.  There are others.  If you don’t like the fact that this business will not sell to blacks, don’t shop there.  There are other places.  Let the market work it out.  If you believe the ideas matter then you can’t just shrug it off and ignore it.

I don’t believe in banning (“All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful”), but I do believe in boycotts.  The protest of Da Vinci is illuminating in the wake of the violent reactions by Muslims to the Dutch cartoonist last year.  One again, as from earliest times, Christians are using peaceful, civic means to protest something that is way more demeaning to Christ then those cartoons were to Mohammad.

What troubles me most is the lack of goodwill between Christians.  On the one hand you have the Ban Its (BIs), and on the other hand the It’s Just Entertainmenters (IJEs).  In the media the IJEs are acting as if the BIs are just illiterate, fundamentalist, uncultured bumpkins.

Paul’s teaching on food offered to idols is very analogous here.  We are free to eat what we want, but if it offends our brother we are to abstain, lest we cause our brother to stumble.  (1 Cor 8, and 10:23-33).  If the consciences of literally tens of thousands of my brothers and sisters worldwide are offended by this movie, I will not be a source of their stumbling.  Rather than being united in Christian teachings about relationship even when we disagree about theology, we present a fractured and fragmented face to the world.

I humbly and sincerely think that if this particular entertainment is a stumbling block to so many in our Body, that we should be united against it for that reason; instead, most of those who disagree with them unite with the secularist.

  1. “a theoretical concept introduced in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, [which] refers to any unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice, idea or concept, which one mind transmits (verbally or by demonstration) to another mind” []