These folks on the island of Vanatu in the Pacific have woven together from reeds or palm fronds what they hope is a somewhat accurate reconstruction of an airplane — a facsimile good enough at least to let the Cargo God know that it is him whom they worship. It is him whom they implore for assistance.
You see, during World War II airplanes started flying over villages in remote areas of the Pacific that had never before seen Westerners, much less any form of technology. Those planes dropped supplies intended for soldiers on the islands, but sometimes the dropped cargo fell accidentally into areas where these very primitive people lived.
Manna from heaven!
Or, if not Manna, then bread and canned goods and beer and silverrware and gum and hammers and nails and saws and scores of other things the natives had never before seen or even known about.
Lacking any information whatsoever about the industrialized character of much of the Western world, some of these natives concluded that the things that fell unexpectedly from the sky were gifts from the gods, and began to worship them.
Even today, adherents of these so-called Cargo Cults continue to construct from memory and from wrecks (like the one below) replicas of planes, seeking thereby to call the cargo planes back again.
It’s a religion based on an error — and specifically, on an error rooted in incomplete knowledge of the rest of the world, which is far more populated and far more sophisticated than they realize.
It’s an error that we moderns see clearly, as they cannot, for they know only their culture.
But it’s the kind of error that we modern commit with ever greater frequency, and often for exactly the same reason: because most of us know only our own culture.
This point comes to mind in part because the decaying airplanes on which adherents of Cargo Cults model their “idols” bear a striking resemblance to the decaying papyri dug from the dry Egyptian earth. Recently some moderns have argued that these half-rotted scrolls should be the foundation for a new understanding, and perhaps even new forms, of the Christian religion. These papyri have awakened in many an impetus to defend old forms such as Gnosticism and the mishmash of historical and theological claims made in books like the da Vinci Code.
As you can see from the image above, a freshly dug papyrus is not a pretty picture, and even once it’s moistened and carefully teased open by pressing its curls flat, it hardly looks less decrepit than that airplane.
These, however, are merely superficial resemblances to Cargo Cults.
And they’re not the reason moderns tend to build new forms of Christianity from these old documents.
The real reason is more subtle, and not easily seen by us today.
For (as will be shown in my coming posts on this blog, and as will be shown in detail in our forthcoming book on the Bodmer papyrus) just as early adherents of the Cargo Cults did, in fact, truly see airplanes fly overhead and actually received from those airplanes many kinds of strange goods, so, in recent decades archaeologists have found many non-canonical papyri like the Sayings of Jesus, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and others from the early centuries after the death of Jesus that diverge from and sometimes even contradict outright Christian teachings that have been accepted for centuries.
In both cases — that is, with regard to both the cargoes that fell from heaven and the real non-canonical Gospels that have come forth recently from the earth — the question is, “What are we to make of them?”
In the coming weeks, we shall see that just as the Cargo Cults are religions based on an error— and specifically, on an error rooted in incomplete knowledge of the rest of the world and a failure to comprehend its sophistication — so Gnostic-like Christian cults grounded in recent discoveries of papyri are also based on an error — and specifically, on a factual error rooted in incomplete knowledge of the life of Christians in the ancient world as well as a failure to comprehend its sophistication, which was far greater than most of us realize.
Most persons disturbed by a small fragment of a papyrus that seems to suggest that Jesus was married have no idea that in the past 150 years archaeologists have not merely found a few fragments of papyri, nor even a few hundred. Today there are hundreds of thousands of them housed in warehouses across the world.
To those papyri — more than half a million in number — we must turn if we are to grasp with confidence the real significance of fragments suggesting a married Jesus, and the Nag Hammadi and the Bodmer discoveries.
Over the coming weeks, our attention will turn to those papyri, hoping thereby to overcome critical factual errors about the life of early Christians in Egypt: precisley the kind of factual errors that gave birth to the Cargo Cults of Vanatu. Doing so will help ensure that we do not find ourselves worshipping, if only figuratively, under the wings of a pseudo-cargo plane.