What Jesus Has In Common with the Dung Beetle: Things You Learn from Dreaming in New Orleans

This third essay in our series, First Creation Dreaming, begins with a discussion of how African ecstatic spirituality can help you experience Jesus’ love message. It concludes with the long-forgotten story of how Jesus the African healer encountered a dung beetle who helped St. Augustine convert to Christianity, which has everything to do with why it took so long in human history for jazz to be invented in New Orleans.

 

An African Memorial Quilt in New Orleans

This essay began when Hillary dreamed that she was taking a walk in New Orleans, where we live:

I came upon a large outdoor art installation in a small city park that was located next to a museum. Spread out on a platform built on the ground was a large colorful quilt that was a memorial for the African diaspora, made by distinguished artists of African descent. The quilt was about the size of a half a basketball court. It was completely surrounded by many small colorful sculptures and paintings that other artists had created for this honoring. Several people were walking around and admiring the art.

I looked up and saw an African American woman dressed in black. In the dream I recognized her as an old friend and she smiled and waved me over. She told me she had been appointed as the museum docent and curator of this art installation. She walked me over to one side of the quilt to point out the work of a particular artist who had been commissioned to create memorials for famous performers and artists of African descent, doing so “using no words.” I looked down and saw a series of small sculptures that appeared to be made of polished stone. Upon closer examination I saw they were scarabs and each one had been made to honor a former singer, writer, dancer, or poet.

It isn’t surprising that a quilted memorial to performers and artists of the African diaspora would be displayed in a dreamtime New Orleans. The city, and Congo Square in particular, is regarded by many as the birthplace of African-American music, which is inseparable from “American” music. Now located inside the boundaries of Louis Armstrong Park, Congo Square was a Sunday market and gathering place in the 19th century for enslaved Africans. They were permitted one day per week to drum, dance, sing, socialize, and buy and sell goods freely. New Orleans-born jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said, “Every strand of American music comes directly from Congo Square.”

Nick Douglass writes on Afropunk: “While Protestant colonies and states suppressed African language, music and traditions, Louisiana Creoles (descendants of the colonial inhabitants of Louisiana) were not as stringent about forcing Africans to assimilate. So they didn’t. African food, language, traditions, religions, music and homemade musical instruments survived in Louisiana (like almost nowhere else in the U.S.). In the early 1800s the city had its population double as whites, free people of color and the slaves they forced to accompany them fled the Haitian Revolution, some via exile in Cuba. This influx brought more African, French and Caribbean musical influences into the city.”

 

“The Bamboula,” an etching by Edward W. Kemble that accompanied George Washington Cable’s description of dancing in Congo Square published in 1886, decades after the gatherings had been prohibited.

 

But what about the stone scarabs? The next morning we did some research and discovered that in ancient Egypt it was common to bury people with a stone scarab over their heart, the underside of which sometimes included a scriptural inscription in hieroglyphics. This picture of a heart scarab from Johns Hopkins Archeological Museum is exactly like the ones Hillary saw in her dream:

 

 

From an article by Dr. Nicola Adderley from the University of Birmingham:

“Heart scarabs were placed on the chest of the mummified body, either under or on the mummy wrappings. The earliest known examples date to the Thirteenth Dynasty and they remained in use until the Roman Period. The purpose of these scarabs was to ensure a smooth transition for the deceased into the afterlife…Scarabs utilized in burial contexts, in addition to retaining their protective function, also served to aid the deceased in undergoing his or her transformation into an akh spirit in the realm of the dead. In many cases, this role was implicit in the scarab form, with its inherent associations of new life, resurrection and existence.”

 

Jesus and the African Way

Brad also had a dream that same night. In his dream we were gathered with our students in the mentorship program and told them that before they could deeply understand the teachings of Jesus, the original African way must be first understood and embodied. Our dreams were related as each pointed to how the African diaspora wove the quilt – the fabric of wisdom – in which the soulful aesthetic and ecstatic contributions of humanity are held. They tapped into the art of elevating emotion, multiplying rhythm, improvising vocalization, embellishing song, and joyfully moving the body as the primary modes of expression for spirituality, offering an alternative to stillness, silence, and doctrinal interpretation that gets lost in abstraction, unable to touch the body or soul.

How is an Egyptian scarab related to the life and teachings of Jesus? After the dreams we discovered a book from the 19th century written by a man named Gerald Massey who attributed the following statement to St. Augustine (354-430) who lived in “Roman Africa” (present-day Algeria). Here Augustine regards Jesus as a scarab (dung beetle):

“My own good beetle, not so much because he is only begotten (God), not because he, the author of himself, has taken on the form of mortals, but because he has rolled himself in our filth and chooses to be born from this filth itself.”

Elsewhere we found St. Epiphanius quoted as saying, “Christ is the scarabaeus of God.” With further research we discovered that not only have scholars questioned whether these statements were actually made by these saints, there is also uncertainty about the whole historical accuracy of religion itself, including whether Jesus actually existed. Theories about the relationship between Jesus, Egyptian religion, and early Christians have proliferated since the 19th century and often include the argument that Jesus was not in fact a historical figure, but a myth based on older, pagan mythologies.[1]

 

As scholars ourselves, we frown upon citing quotations (as fact) that cannot be clearly substantiated like the ones above. But as First Creation dreamers we embrace how the visionary realm encourages a metaphor to echo other layers of metaphorical truths, including those imagined rather than historically recorded. Here the dream constellation of New Orleans, Egyptian heart scarabs, Jesus, and the African ecstatic way are quilted together to create a fabric of mystical truth that is easily overlooked if we restrict ourselves to isolated historical facts alone. As both scholars and mystics we also question the notion that any religion is “pure”—untouched and uninfluenced by what historically preceded it. Each religion cannot avoid being a blend of elements that came before it. Many have pondered whether there is only one big spiritual stream, lake, or sea that is the source of all tributaries of sacred devotion.

We are personally not interested in settling the question of whether Jesus was a historical figure, a mystical illumination, a spiritual archetype, or a new type of love beacon. Instead we ask whether and how the teachings and aesthetic expression inspired by Jesus advance or retard the pyrotechnical practice of ecstatic spirituality (a stream that was flowing before Jesus came on the scene). Without sacred ecstatic know-how, whatever wisdom is offered quickly becomes lost in cold arguments over historical accuracy, philosophical logic, or worse—it becomes another chisel and hammer to pound out another hardened dichotomous morality. This phenomenon is certainly not limited to Christians, however the battle between elevating the free expression of sacred emotion versus rigid obedience to “the word” has been particularly alive when it comes to the question of what to do about Jesus.

The central debate for Christianity and perhaps all religions is this: whether radical love with its sacred emotion should be fostered to directly touch people’s lives or whether pledges to abstract notions far removed from emotion and body motion should prevail. More simply asked, does a religion promote true believers who only look and judge others or does it embrace ecstatic seekers who cook and transform others via the highest ecstatic love? In comparison all other debates pale, feel stale, and quickly tire the soul making us forget that we should attend to the fire that lights the world, no matter its name or incarnation.

 

The earliest known depiction of the original “holy roller.”

 

Way Down Yonder in the Kalahari

Let’s look at something that is accepted as more likely written by Augustine. To the degree that words can evoke heightened sacred emotion, he comes close to doing so in his poem, “You are Christ,” which Catholics attribute to him:

“May the live coal of Your Love grow hot within my spirit and break forth into a perfect fire; may it burn incessantly on the altar of my heart; may it glow in my innermost being; may it blaze in hidden recesses of my soul…”

St. Augustine was probably unaware when he wrote these words that roughly six thousand miles south of him on the same African continent, Bushman n/om-kxaosi (healers/doctors) were singing, clapping, dancing, trembling, shaking—filled with the same blazing inner fire St. Augustine caught with his poetic net. The Ju/’hoan Bushman word for this inner fire is n/om, and it is a blend of heightened sacred emotion, uplifting song, and somatic vibration. N/om is not a concept to contemplate, nor is it only a metaphor. It is a kind of force physically felt and expressed by the singing, moving, trembling body. Later in the Americas, and most readily in the black church, Christians would have a similar experience referred to as “holy ghost power.”

For centuries the Bushmen maintained the primacy of n/om as the central experience and expression of spirituality and healing. The Bushmen regard the reception of a thorn, arrow, or nail of n/om as the mark of energetic “conversion” and fortunate for them, they enjoyed more freedom from the political-theological word and legal battles than both Jesus and Augustine. Bushmen doctors would relate differently to St. Augustine’s report of his conversion experience. When he proclaimed to have heard a voice tell him to “take up and read [the Bible],” we imagine the Bushmen would be more moved by the emotion in Augustine’s voice than the details about the scripture he subsequently encountered. In the Kalahari it is not the semantic content of one’s story but the degree of n/om in the body that matters. Beliefs and opinions about the nature of God and mystery are present in the Kalahari, but excessive talk about them is regarded as undertaken in the providence of “trickster” and therefore held suspect and not considered relevant to feeling a rope (their metaphor for relationship) to God.[2]

N/om is awakened by soulful singing, syncopated rhythm, and a shaking body, but the presence of any of these does not necessarily mean the fire of n/om is burning. No one can know, for example, how much n/om was actually circulating in Congo Square (it would of course have been called by different names). By the time the colonial slave trade began, central and western African religions were already a mix of older African n/om-how and other belief systems with proliferated word and scripture, including Christianity and Islam. Already the spirituality of raw n/om used for spiritual cooking—the original Bushman way—had journeyed far into the word lands. To say it differently, the ecstatic spirituality that spread through the African diaspora was already a quilt of different traditions with various saturations of dyed linguistic hues when it arrived on foreign shores.[3]

If there is one thing we know from our own quilted experience as two folks from the Midwest who were born in different generations, both becoming n/om-kxaosi who shook with the Bushmen and ended up living in New Orleans—one of us a jazz pianist and the other a dancer—it’s that n/om thrives in a climate of constant change. If we try to trap and bottle it inside rigid conceptual schemas, racial categories, cultural boundaries, geographical borders, institutional walls of excusive inclusion, or the banal modalities of frozen and excessively oracular rituals, the fire quickly goes out. Then n/om waits to bubble up somewhere else. Sometimes there is more spirited wonder working power pouring from a jazz trumpet than there is in a Bushman dance or sanctified holiness church. But even the creative performing artists eventually get a flat tire and lose their fire, and then they too need an infusion of good old-fashioned religious fervor, by which we mean being struck by an arrow of old school African n/om.

We invented Sacred Ecstatics as a way to creatively house the changing vehicles of n/om, offering a big theatre that is able to include our relationship to the love stylistics of Jesus, the cedar saints of Lebanon, the thorn shooters of the Kalahari, the life force masters of Japan, the swinging jazz musicians of New Orleans, the improvising shamans of the flying drum Arctic, the rhythm kings and queens of the African diaspora, the symphonic universes of Beethoven and Liszt, and the hum-along melodies of Broadway, among other fired up inspirations. Whenever we or our students get spiritually chilly and stuck in the abstractions of trickster naming, we return to the roots of ecstatic know-how—what we call spiritual engineering—to bring us back into the big room where the music flows and the fire of divine love burns hot enough to melt all boundaries that separate us from one another and the mystery that is beyond temporal tense and logical sense.

The True Story of Jesus, New Orleans, and the African Scarab

We leave you with a mystically inspired tale, born of the inner fire. It aims to confuse your trickster-grounded mind while lighting the fuse of your soaring heart:

Once upon a time there was a man in the Kalahari named Jesus who was a Bushman doctor, what they call a “heart of the spears.” This latter name is given to the spiritually cooked doctors with the most n/om. After many years of helping his people and climbing up and down the rope to God, Jesus got old and died a peaceful death in his sleep. During his final moment on earth a dung beetle passed by, crawled onto his body which was still warm, and laid right on top of Jesus’s heart to partake in an insect nap. During this time of rest the little scarab had a dream. He envisioned he was resting peacefully when all of a sudden Jesus (who by now had become a newly-minted ankh spirit or ancestor) let out a big n/om shout as Bushman n/om-kxaosi often do when they are awakened by n/om. This sound was filled with so much trembling power that it shot the scarab all the way up to the heavens.

After zooming past the sun and all the planets, the scarab found himself in a large village in the sky with a big camel thorn tree in the middle. He mingled with the gods who seemed to have come from every faraway land. There were Kalahari gods, Egyptian gods, the whole pantheon of Greek gods, the even larger cast of Haitian gods, and many other gods from places he had never heard of. The beetle was delighted to see many other beetles there of all shapes and sizes. There were also birds, giraffes, elands, elephants, buffalo, boars, bears, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, parrots, carrots, strawberries, apples, and so on. Some of the gods were laughing, most were singing and dancing, and a few were sitting around a table having heated discussions. Mostly they were discussing what to do about a place the scarab had never heard of called “the Roman Empire” which apparently was all in chaos. The gist of it was that the pagans were blaming the Christians for the conflict and vice versa.

Many of the talking gods were big believers in the written word and argued that what Rome needed was a good theologian with a deep grasp of the various philosophies and beliefs of the time to sort it all out for the populace. But they were outnumbered by the old school gods who always preferred a more musical intervention. Suddenly one of the Kalahari gods, a praying mantis who always knew where her aunt is, noticed the scarab eavesdropping on their conversation. She could see that the little scarab was full of n/om, having been recently blasted into the heavens by Jesus, the famous big Kalahari doctor whom the musical gods had gifted with many songs. She gently picked up the scarab and all the gods were happy to see it so full of life, so they devised another plan to intervene in the Roman Empire that would truly change the course of history.

The little scarab was flung back down to earth to deliver a message to a young scholarly man named Augustine. It’s amazing that the scarab did not get stepped on as he crawled to his assigned destination, but after all it was Northern Africa and thanks to the ancient Egyptians people still held the scarabs in high esteem, even if they couldn’t remember exactly why. Everyone took care to let him pass. The scarab finally came upon Augustine sitting exactly where the gods said he would be found. While contemplating his personal struggles with faith, religion, and morality, Augustine suddenly heard what he thought was a child’s voice say, “take up and read.” The scarab immediately noticed that Augustine had misheard his squeaky message as a prescription to read the Bible and convert to its words. In his passionate zeal to find the nearest good book, Augustine tripped over the little scarab, which he took as a sign from God that he had stumbled onto the right path. The bookish gods were of course delighted at Augustine’s prolific writing that ensued and entertained by the many centuries of theological analysis and debate in which it resulted.

The scarab’s message, however, was not a prescription to read a book, but a musical invitation to “take up a reed, take up a reed,” meaning learn to play the clarinet. Because of this innocent misinterpretation (for which we must fault the talking gods for choosing words that so easily produce phonetic ambiguity) the world would have to wait hundreds more years for the clarinet to be invented in Germany, makes its way to America, mix with the rhythms of Congo Square, and eventually help give birth to jazz.

The little scarab finally woke up from his long dream and found himself no longer in the Kalahari but in a place called New Orleans. By this time he was exhausted and had grown tired of the talking gods’ indecision about various matters including whether the strongest n/om songs should be housed in the church or the juke joints or both. So he wandered the streets looking for another place to rest. To his surprise he passed by a large statue of his old friend from the Kalahari, Jesus, whom a tourist passing by referred to as “the touchdown Jesus” because of the way he had his arms outstretched like a football referee. The scarab had never seen the earthly or heavenly saints play American football so he mistakenly thought these words referred to the landing of a launched rocket (or launched scarab) because when it lands, mission control announces, “touchdown.”

Confused by this strange world and even stranger talk, the scarab kept on moving until he at last came upon a cozy-looking quilt in the middle of a small city park. He promptly crawled onto a square to take a well-deserved nap, doing his best to avoid another zap that might send him to mystical space. As he dozed off, he heard two women discussing something about the vast weave of Africa, scarabs, and memorials but he was too sleepy to listen and had become wisely cautious about being caught eavesdropping on matters in which he’d rather not get involved. Preferring the rolling dung of life over any stilled words that arrest life’s journey, he fell asleep and dreamed he was again touching down on earthly ground in the cross, crossroads, intersection, in the sect, and the in-sect of heaven. The Sun of Ra and the ray of the holy son then sang this song to him, something too profound for conscious mind to ever fully grasp: “In the quilt of the changing names is found the changing worlds, changing religions, changing arts, and changing truths that are all the same changing of n/om that lead you home.”

The end.

– The Keeneys. June 16, 2018

 

 

 

[1] The beetle quote by St. Augustine is from The Historical Jesus and Mythical Christ by Gerald Massey, originally published in 1883. Gerald Massey (1828-1907) was a British poet, spiritualist, and Egyptologist whose aim was to uncover the Egyptian roots of Christianity in order to suggest that Jesus was not a historical figure, but a mythic one. Massey’s work has been critiqued by theologians and some Egyptologists as being largely unfounded. This blogger has tried to track down sources to the many references to the scarab among the church fathers proliferated by Massey and others. It seems, as if often the case, one book references another and therefore it’s hard to say whether these quotations are accurate. Massey’s work has been referenced more recently in the popular writings of the late author and theologian, Tom Harpur.

[2] See our book, Way of the Bushman: Spiritual Teachings and Practices of the Ju/’hoansi as Told by the Tribal Elders, published by Inner Traditions (2015).

[3] See Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South published by Oxford University Press (1978, 2004).

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