Friday, January 12, 2007

Cataclysms and Religious and Cultural Upheaval: I

The Eruption of Krakatoa, 1883

While we were down on Nantucket Island the week following Christmas, I was sitting in the living room of my father-in-law’s cottage and pulled out a book from the shelf that Anne and I had given to him as a gift a few years ago, but hadn’t yet read ourselves, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. I was quickly hooked. It was a riveting and fascinating read about the volcanic island in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java that blew itself apart in a massive phreatic eruption, taking 36,000 souls with it.

I first remember hearing about Krakatoa when I was a kid. I recall seeing ads on TV for a corny and badly produced B-movie called Krakatoa, East of Java! Actually, Krakatoa was west of the island of Java, which is part of Indonesia today, but was a Dutch colony at the time of the eruption. The author, Simon Winchester, has a background in geology and provides a thorough and highly readable description of the time and place and events surrounding the eruption, including explanations in layman’s terms of continental drift, plate tectonics, subduction zones, and vulcanology. As it turned out, the deadly tsunami of Christmas Day, 2004, which occurred after this book was written, was a manifestation of the same intense friction between the tectonic plates in the area that created the volcano at Krakatoa, and was in fact much more deadly. As we look at some of these natural disasters like earthquakes and volcanoes, and wonder why God would allow such things to occur, it is interesting to note in the scientific explanations that the world is built to do these things, that it must do these things, that they were essential for life itself to flourish to begin with, and that shifting continental plates and volcanoes actually provide a means for the world to recycle and renew itself.

Anak Krakatoa (Son of Krakatoa)

Some interesting facts about the eruption at Krakatoa…

- It was not the first eruption in this general location. Winchester suspects that there was a massive eruption of Krakatoa around the year 535 AD, and at other points in history. This also happens to be the thesis of author David Keys, who wrote in his book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, that a huge explosive eruption in 535 AD actually caused Sumatra and Java to split up into separate islands. According to Keys, the eruption occurred with the force of "two thousand million Hiroshima size bombs”, and that the “Dark Ages” that we speak of really were in fact literally dark, due to the massive clouds of volcanic ash and dust that rose up into the atmosphere. His thesis is that in the face of the ensuing fear, famine, disease, and apocalyptic uncertainty that followed, the Roman Empire collapsed and Islam arose out of Arabia…

- It will not be the last eruption at that location. In 1927, Anak Krakatoa (Son of Krakatoa) first breached the surface of the ocean near the spot of the original volcano and became a permanent island by 1930. It has been growing since at a rate of 5 inches per day. This smoking, volcanic island is now 1500 feet high…

- The concluding eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 was probably the loudest sound ever heard by modern human beings. The shock wave caused by the final, obliterating explosion circled the world an amazing seven times over a period of fifteen days. It was clearly heard on the Island of Rodriguez, near Mauritius, nearly 3,000 miles away.

- The temperature of the earth was cooled by a degree, and for years afterwards, the dust clouds thrown into the air by the volcano caused lurid and colorful sunsets around the world.

- Most of the casualties were not caused by the explosion or by volcanic ash, but by the huge tsunamis created by the eruption.

- Due to the invention of the electronic telegraph several decades earlier, and its widespread usage throughout the world via rubberized undersea cables, the eruption at Krakatoa was reported quickly around the globe and can be considered to be the first worldwide media event, ushering the “global village” long before Marshall McCluhan coined the term.

One of the things that I found most interesting, however, was the cultural after-affects that in some ways mirrored the previous eruptions of Krakatoa. Shortly after these events occurred in 1883, the Dutch colonists started running into real problems with the Javanese islanders. Islam had been predominant among the native population for several centuries beforehand, but it had been tolerant, rather syncretistic, and a less observant form than what was found in the Middle East. After the eruption there was a rise in Islamic fundamentalism throughout the entire region, which planted the seeds for the eventual withdrawal of the Dutch from the area and the independence of Indonesia.

Several authors have written about how apocalyptic events have caused religious and cultural shifts that have wound up altering the course of history in significant ways. Many of the historical Jesus scholars emphasize the trauma of the Jewish-Roman Wars and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem when looking at the rise of Christianity and the parting of the ways between Pharisaical Judaism and the nascent Christian movement. In Plagues and Peoples, William McNeill pointed out the impact of disease on world history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond goes a bit further with that thesis and introduces the impact of flora, fauna, geography, and climate. In Winchester’s Krakatoa and Keys’ Catastrophe, we read about the impact of catalcysms caused by nature. In this interview and in this interview, Winchester says some interesting things about Krakatoa, the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, and religious revivals of apocalyptic mood…
Well, the extraordinary thing that happened, specifically in Java and Sumatra, is that this event was immediately picked up by the religious leaders, who in those days were Muslims. The area was rapidly being converted from Hinduism to Islam. There were a lot of Arabs there who were priests or mullahs, and they said within a matter of days of the devastation, that this was clearly a sign from Allah-- Allah, who was annoyed, specifically angered by the fact that the Javanese and the Sumatrans were allowing themselves to be ruled by white, western, infidel Dutch imperialists.

"Rise up and kill them: is essentially what the mullahs said, and sure enough, within a matter of days, there was a degree of killing of Dutch soldiers and bureaucrats. Then the mullahs said, "No, no, no, don't do this in a piecemeal fashion, do it in an organized fashion." And sure enough over the next few years, careful planning went underway, triggered by Krakatoa, and five years later there was a massive rebellion, which was the beginning, one might say, of the end of Dutch rule in Java and Sumatra and the beginning of the creation of what is now the most populous Islamic state on Earth, Indonesia…

…A similar thing happened in California not, however, with the Muslims but with fundamentalist Christians. There was a church down in Los Angeles in a place called Azusa Street, which was a fledgling church of people who called themselves Pentecostalists. They spoke in tongues, they waved their arms around and did all sorts of crazy things. All things that would appear to others as crazy. And all that sort of direction came about because of manifestations as they saw it from God. He would send signs down. Miracles would be called. People would, as I mentioned, talk in tongues. On the week before the San Francisco earthquake, this little church had a modest-size meeting, and a couple of people spoke in tongues, and it was all going along quite nicely, but the Pastor stood up and said we are expecting a sign from the Lord.

Three days later San Francisco, arguably the most sinful of all American cities given over to drinking and whoring and gambling and all those fun things that happened in the aftermath of the gold rush days. But a city that lived for fun, for sin was destroyed by an earthquake. And so the Pastor, not unreasonably, said, well there's no doubt about it, this is the sign from God that we've been waiting for. And suddenly this little church was overrun with people, I mean tens of thousands of people came, they had overspill locations. It became like the Crystal Cathedral that you see in Los Angeles today and the link is not actually an unreasonable one to make because out of the Pentecostalist church that began in essentially 1906 came all the great evangelical movements from Aimee Semple McPherson right through to Pat Robertson and Tammy Fay and Jim Bakker. One might argue--and I don't want to make too much of this--that the power of the Christian right and particularly the Pentecostal brand of Evangelicals has had a crucially important effect on contemporary American politics. That movement was triggered in large part by what was perceived as a sign from God on April 18, 1906. So, the downstream effects of the San Francisco earthquake, if you do say, it caused Pentecostalism, it gave us conservative Christianity, and it gave us certain political effects that are being felt around the world.


Steve Bogner said...

Very interesting! I like how you point out that the earth must do these things - volcanos, earthquakes, etc. It's part of the world God created, it's how creation works. We have a lot to learn about living in ways that complement creation.

The rise of Pentecostalism linked to the San Francisco earthquake? I hadn't heard that before, but I can see how it could happen. My inlaws are, for the most part, Pentecostals . It was quite a scandal when I entered the family :)

crystal said...

It is interesting, Jeff.

I remember that movie - i always mix it up with the one by Thor Heyerdahl ... kon-tiki :-)

I was watching a show on the history channel a while ago- it talked about the effect on society caused by meteorite strikes. It was thought that perhaps Constantine made the decision to become a (nominal?) christian because of seeing a comet (I think).

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

Yes, unfathomable the ways of God, aren't they? His ways are surely not our ways.

I'm sincerely sorry to hear about the religious tensions that arose when you entered the family. That's a tough way for a young couple to start out. I hope things have gotten better for you both in that regard as the years have passed.

Jeff said...

Hi Crsytal,

Did you actually see that movie?? Was it any good? I liked Maximilian Schell.

Meteor strikes and comets do get brought up a lot. I still have little kids, so of course I'm reading to them about dinosuars all the time... The big theory is that a comet caused the mass extinction of dinosuars. Having read Winchester's book. I'm wondering, "Why a comet? Why not a massive volcanic eruption?"

crystal said...

Hi Jeff - I did see the movie, on TV I think, but I don't remember much about it.

I wonder what the difference in effect there would be between a massive meteor strike and a big volcano eruption. I read a trilogy of novels once about the end of the world, the second coming, and part of the destruction that happened before the end was caused by three meteors strikes ... really awful!