I’m in Ethiopia! (Details to Come)

In a surprisingly short amount of time, the opportunity to visit Ethiopia presented itself. I arrived a little over 12 hours ago, and I expect to return to Iowa in just under a week. I’ll be comfortable giving more details when I return, but let me say that this is going to be a tough week for a lot of reasons. Prayers are most certainly needed and appreciated.


2022 End of Year Update

I did not get a letter written in time for CVM to prepare and send it prior to Christmas; in fact, I technically didn’t get it submitted in time for them to send it in January, but those gracious and hard-working folks made it happen, and we thank God for them. Here is an advance copy of the letter that you will receive if you have signed up in the past:

To Our Beloved Family and Friends, and to Those Who Have United Themselves to Christ Alongside Us – 

Because we have temporarily transferred from full-time fieldworker to affiliates with Christian Veterinary Mission, we have not been writing monthly prayer letters until it is time to prepare to head back overseas. In the meantime, we’ll only write occasionally via CVM’s letter system. I (John) will hopefully be more active on our blog, which is located at www.thecoatneys.com. If you like, you can subscribe to the blog, so that you’re notified via email when I publish a new post. The subscribe feature can be found on the homepage’s right-hand column.

I’m writing on December 15; this letter will therefore reach you after Christmas day, but likely before the end of the Christmas season (i.e., during the last half of the 12 Days of Christmas), on the Feast of Theophany, or Epiphany in the West. I pray that you all have had a blessed holiday season and a blessed celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord, and that continues in the celebration of his baptism and/or the visit of the Magi.

I’m sorry that we haven’t been in closer or at least more consistent contact. I acknowledge that the combination of doubling our family in 2019, moving to Ethiopia, being compelled to come back to the States, and being unable to return while watching many suffer whom we’ve come to love has thrown me for a loop. I find myself more easily distracted, more prone to despair or self-pity. I find the routine exercise of thanksgiving a useful and live-giving balm, but alas, one that I fail to practice as consistently or sincerely as would most benefit me.

We are currently renting the parsonage owned by Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, the parish here in Ames. It’s a lovely home, in an ideal location, and we are blessed and grateful for it, and for the parish. The project funding my salary at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the National Institute for Anti-Microbial Resistance Research and Education (NIAMRRE) has been extended until the end of 2023, and so we will remain in Ames at least that long. It pains me to report that my PhD thesis has continued to drag on. I had hoped and scheduled its completion and defense at the end of November, but some of the data analysis required that I extend it until (hopefully) the end of February. Significant progress has certainly been made over the past year, and there is a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel.

News from Ethiopia contains a glimmer of hope, as a peace deal was signed between two of the warring parties in early November. It remains to be seen whether or to what extent the deal will be upheld, though, and in the meantime war, famine, and suffering continues. Please pray for peace and the relief of suffering in Ethiopia. I may be able to make a trip this spring if the situation allows for it; I will certainly keep you all posted.

Meanwhile, the boys are thriving and Kristen’s schooling has borne much fruit. Charlie (3rd grade) has become an avid and advanced reader; Easton (1st grade) has the mind and passion of an engineer – a builder with remarkable talent and insight, as well as a natural athlete. Judah (Kindergarten) is our ladies’ man and gifted snuggler, and Titus (3 y.o.) is as tough as nails and determined to keep up with the brothers. Activities abound, including P.E. and enrichment classes, sports of all kinds (Jiu Jitsu, soccer, flag football, T-ball, basketball), 4-H, and piano lessons.

We love you all. We pray for you every evening. Your support and love and encouragement mean more to us that words can say.

Thank you for all you do for us,

  • John, Kristen, Charlie, Easton, Judah, and Titus 
Kristen and the boys sitting with faculty from veterinary schools in Kenya and Uganda. They participated in a faculty exchange this past semester at Iowa State.

Brief Thoughts on a Theology of Veterinary Medicine

I was asked recently what veterinary medicine has taught me about theology, and vice versa. I thought perhaps folks might be interested in my answer:

A few key points:

1. St Maximos the Confessor’s concept of Microcosm and Mediator has taught me that part of our telos as human beings is to mediate God’s grace to the rest of creation, and to offer that act of mediation and its fruits back to God in thanksgiving. I believe that we are meant to do that with animals in an especially significant way because of all that we have in common with them.

2. As a veterinarian, the ability to prevent, mitigate, and heal animal disease (and suffering, including through euthanasia) is a sacred gift and obligation, especially in light of the fact that their suffering is due to our sin. It has completely changed the way that I understand the effect that my sin has not only on other people, but on creation in general.

3. Working with animals with a focus on the relief of their suffering necessarily involves an awareness of the owner’s relationship with the animal, and the relationship of the animal’s suffering with the owner’s suffering, and vice versa. The concept that human health and animal health (often called One Health) are intricately connected is a key (maybe the key) concept taught in veterinary medicine. Proper practice of veterinary medicine includes both the fact that humans are set apart from other animals due to our bearing the image of God, and the fact that we are very like other animals due to our being made from the dust/mud of the earth.

4. I owe Fr Stephen De Young for how I now articulate this, but the seed of this idea has been with be for a few years now.

It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that our relationship with domesticated animals, and with companion animals in particular, demonstrates a form of “sub-theosis” whereby animals become more human in a way symbolic of the way that humans become divine. If, as Tolkien understood, we are sub-creators because we are made in the image of the Creator, then perhaps we are sub-deifiers because we are made in the image of the Deifier.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Wil Wheaton, and Knowing Christ

TL;DR: If you are someone who’s relationship to Christ has been damaged by “the hype, entertainment, and expressions of power that drive evangelical life”; if you are someone who wants to know who this person Jesus of Nazareth really is, and what he’s really about; if you are a non-believer as a result of experiencing ways in which Christianity appears to have caused harm rather than blessing to others – please, let me invite you to experience the pursuit of the knowledge of and unity with Jesus Christ by way of a medium that may appear somewhat foreign, antiquated, overly complicated and/or overly simplified, but unquestionably beautiful: the Orthodox Church.

I’ve been listening to a podcast called “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” written and narrated by Mike Cosper and published by Christianity Today. Here’s how the podcast is described on its website:

When Mars Hill Church was planted in Seattle in 1996, few would have imagined where it would lead. But in the next 18 years, it would become one of the largest, fastest-growing, and most influential churches in the United States. Controversy plagued the church, though, due in no small part to the lightning-rod personality at its helm: Mark Driscoll.

By 2014, the church had grown to 15,000 people in 15 locations. But before the year was over, the church collapsed. On January 1, 2015, Mars Hill was gone.

Hosted by Mike Cosper, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill explores the inside story of this church, its charismatic leader, and the conflicts and troubles that brought about its end. You’ll hear from insiders and experts, tracing the threads of this story to so many others that shape the church today.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: Full-Length Trailer

The podcast is very well done, although it is unapologetically one-sided – there is little to no defense of Driscoll’s cult of personality (although Cosper continues to invite Driscoll to come on the podcast, to no avail). There is an assumption that the way Driscoll handled things was wrong, and this is not really questioned (to be sure, the evidence presented in the podcast indicates that this assumption is correct). The bigger questions are why Driscoll and the folks at Mars Hill did what they did and made the decisions that they made, how they justified those decisions, how the congregation responded to those decisions, and how these actions conform to a pattern that can be seen in the wider evangelical world.

The podcast is a microcosm of many of the problems currently facing American evangelical Christianity. The podcasters are clearly seeking to learn from these mistakes and to apply these lessons so as to correct for the deficiencies and red flags that become apparent in hindsight following what happened to Mars Hill and the like.

As I’ve been listening to this podcast over the last few weeks, I also encountered a post on Facebook by Wil Wheaton, an actor who played Ensign Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and whose career was revived when he began playing himself in The Big Bang Theory. Wheaton’s politics and worldview are largely typical of your standard celebrity; I follow him because of his pop culture posts, nostalgia (he also played the lead in the 80’s coming of age movie “Stand By Me”), and because he often posts about board games.

Anyway, on October 2, 2021, Wheaton posted this “photo” of Jesus of Nazareth, which has been making the rounds on social media, created by Dutch photographer Bas Uterwijk using digital technology called Artbreeder, which takes data like geographical and temporal information into account when creating an image. Wheaton used this “photo” to contrast who Jesus actually was with his own perception of how Jesus has been portrayed by American Christianity – especially through the lens of his own personal experiences at parochial school:

I am an atheist. I do not believe in god, or the devil, or heaven, or hell. But I like and respect this guy. He was a rebel, he was an antiauthoritarian, he dedicated his life to helping the poor, the sick, the indigent, the people who were discarded and rejected by society. He hung out with sex workers and lepers, and gave comfort to the sick and suffering, and he loudly and relentlessly called out the hypocrisy of the church and its leaders. As I understand it, he was like, “Hey, you’re a sinner. That’s a bummer. Let me help you be a better person. No, I don’t expect anything from you for that. I just want to be as loving as I can be.” He was a really cool guy.

Now, as someone who has spent countless hours studying how words are used (especially words used to describe God), my first inclination is to correct the places in Wheaton’s comments where his wording might be less than accurate. However, when I stop and look at his words through the lens of someone who believes they’ve been burned by “American Christianity” and as a result has probably never been motivated and able to learn about who Jesus really is, Wheaton’s description makes sense. And most importantly, Wheaton’s portrayal describes someone he wants to know. And where he’s off the mark, the correct wording doesn’t necessarily change that. Jesus is someone whom this atheist – who has nothing but negative associations with Christianity – would nevertheless like to know. That’s actually incredible!

What if there was a community whose purpose was to know Jesus and to become more like him in the ways in which atheists like Wil Wheaton are drawn to him? To show the world who he is in a way that manifests him in beauty, goodness, and truth? What if this community didn’t come with the baggage that burdens much of Western Christianity (see, however, the crucial caveat below)?

Episode 8 of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is entitled “Demon Hunting”:

Using the lesser-known Mars Hill “demon trials” as a backdrop, Cosper explores the Pentecostal origins of Driscoll’s deliverance ministry, examines the extrabiblical rules that governed Mars Hill spiritual warfare, and considers our longing to hear from God and see him move in our midst.

The narrative of the podcast is often interspersed with music that fits the mood of the message that the narrator is seeking to convey. As I was driving to work earlier this week, and as Episode 8 was wrapping up, I was surprised to hear an Orthodox setting of the “Our Father” (The Lord’s Prayer) playing. Cosper’s voiceover bowled me over:

A few years ago, a friend of mine captured this audio in Sitka, Alaska. It’s from a monastery where throughout the day the monks gather to pray the hours, and are often joined by members of the community. Their lives are a day-in, day-out rhythm of work and prayer, full of the normal human drama that we all have, along with their vows. I think of it when visiting this story, because it’s such a contrast. It’s a life designed in many ways to eliminate hype and spectacle, because while these chants are beautiful, they’re simply a routine. The heart of the community is the rhythm, the desire to place your life before God at a steady pace, and to trust he’s doing work over that long, slow obedience. I don’t think we should all become monastics, but I think that along with the imagery of Revelation 12, the imagery of the monastery, and the rhythms of the hours, the commitment to a way of life is a provocative contrast to the hype, entertainment, and expressions of power that drive evangelical life.

Photo taken at St. Katherine Orthodox Church in Carlsbad, CA

I was shocked to hear Cosper offer this as the alternative to the dumpster fire that he’d been describing for the past eight episodes. Not shocked because it’s wrong, but because it’s exactly right. “The imagery of Revelation 12, the imagery of the monastery, the rhythms of the hours, the commitment to a way of life…”; this is the Way that I discovered in the Iraqi desert in the spring of 2009! We don’t all become monastics, but this Way has gleaned and granted to its members over 2,000 years of experience in how to apply this “monastic” way of living to the world of families, children, work, distraction, temptation, and the rest. Cosper hits the nail right on the head: “The heart of the community is the rhythm, the desire to place your life before God at a steady pace, and to trust he’s doing work over that long, slow obedience.” This is exactly what the Orthodox Church offers its members; this is what drew me to the Church.

Please note that this is not directed towards those of you who are members of communities that effectively enable you to grow in Christ. This post wasn’t written to encourage anyone to leave a church where they are being led to know Christ and be united to him. This post is for those who don’t feel like they fit into an American Christian community because of past experiences or cultural hangups. Let me assure you (and here is the caveat mentioned above) that my Church, too, is made up of sinners, and that we have our own baggage (and in some cases, baggage that has resulted from our encounters with American Christianity).

But the way in which we approach knowing Jesus…! If this is something you want, but have been burned by a Mars Hill-like experience – let me encourage you to discover the Orthodox Church and our steadfast dedication to better answering the question “What think ye of the Christ? Who do you say that I am?” Wil Wheaton says, “He was a really cool guy.” It’s a start. But there’s so, so much more.

Updates At Last!

The past few months have been some of the slowest and most confusticated of our adult lives. As you’ll see below, there has been much thought directed toward waiting, and much discussion regarding what it means to wait for the Lord (and, thanks to some good counsel, what it means to wait on the Lord).

I’m posting the monthly letters that we’ve written for August (written July 28) and for September (written August 19), to show how much can happen in a short time!

Little ducklings trying to stay out of the rain.

Letter 1:

Dear Friends,

Please consider taking a few minutes to read this update closely, so that you will all have a good idea of where we are, why, and where we hope to be heading.  

The Last Few Months

Our monthly letter was put on hold over the summer as Christian Veterinary Mission transitioned to organizational autonomy. The personnel at CVM headquarters in Seattle have been incredible during this transition, and have once again reaffirmed our decision to work with this organization whose administrators are dedicated and determined to take care of its field workers.

Our last letter, published in April, indicated that I (John) had most likely arrived in Addis Ababa (finally!) on 05 April, and was preparing to set up a home for our family and learning how we could serve the people in Mekelle and Tigray from a distance, and how we could also serve the people in Addis and possible elsewhere in Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, this is not what happened. The Ethiopian office issuing visas was significantly delayed this past spring (for a number of reasons that I’d gladly discuss one-on-one), and the visa for which I had applied did not arrive in time for me to make my flight departing on 03 April. I therefore had to postpone that flight indefinitely until I could obtain the visa. On May 03, I was notified that my visa had been denied, but I was not given a reason for the denial (again, I’m glad to discuss possible reasons with any of you individually). At this point, I hired a service that processes visas for foreign travelers in the hope that the service would be able to eliminate a number of the potential reasons for another visa denial.

One challenge with using this service, however, was that the paperwork they required for the application (which is listed clearly by the Ethiopian issuing office) differed from what I have used in the past. The reasons for this discrepancy are largely bureaucratic and boring, but it required weeks of emailing back and forth between the service, my sponsor in Ethiopia (the university), and myself, further complicated by the fact that university personnel were more often than not without internet access due to current events in Ethiopia.

As we were preparing to finalize and submit the application in the middle of June, the Ethiopian office announced that they were temporarily halting approval of all visas for entry into Ethiopia. The visa service we had hired subsequently issued me a refund and cancelled my request.

Shortly after this (i.e., the end of June), the Ethiopian federal government withdrew from Mekelle and Tigray, proclaiming a unilateral ceasefire that would last until September, and the Tigrayan forces against whom the federal government had been battling took control of Mekelle and began reclaiming portions of Tigray.

As far as we understand it, what this means for us is that our university is no longer under the control of the Ethiopian federal government, and therefore cannot be the source of invitation necessary to obtain an entry visa into Ethiopia.

Watching the Tulsa Drillers play ball!

The Plan Moving Forward

Our current course of action involves me having contacted (and currently awaiting replies from) several individuals I know in the broader Ethiopian veterinary community to inquire whether any of them would be willing and able to put me in contact with their organizations (in most cases, universities) with the intention of discussing the possibility of working/consulting with these organizations. This will ultimately allow us to obtain a visa and do the sort of work we intended to do in Mekelle but simply aren’t able to do at this time.

We have discussed back-up plans (and back-ups to those plans, and so on) involving other places in Africa and elsewhere that we might consider working, but we’re still eager to pursue work in Ethiopia, given the amount of time we’ve spent working in this country (since 2014!), given the needs of Ethiopian veterinary infrastructure as a leader in the Horn of Africa, as the possessor of more livestock than any other African country, and given the work we’ve envisioned with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

John celebrated his Mike Gundy-eth birthday in June. (For those who don’t get the reference, search “Mike Gundy I’m a man I’m 40” on YouTube.)

A Theology of Transition, of Waiting, and of Discernment

As many of you know (and as all of you can surely imagine), the last year and a half – and really, the last three years – has led to a plethora of conversations about how one goes about distinguishing God’s intention to move us elsewhere (i.e., a closed door) from the evil one’s attempts to prevent us from doing what we might do to better unite ourselves and others to Christ. 

We want more than anything to grow more like Christ, and we believe that in doing so, those around us, through God’s grace, will become more like Christ as well. I will be the first to admit that this sounds much more pleasant and idyllic than it is in practice. I will also admit that I continue to think that I know best how to pursue growth in Christ – in Ethiopia! Working at a vet school! Teaching at a seminary! Suffering a self-imposed ascesis because we chose to live there without creature comforts that we knew we would not have (How brave! How noble!)! I think I know best, when clearly I’m meant to be united to Christ here, in Oklahoma, at home, with good food tempting me, with fast internet and enough streaming content to choke a horse tempting me. But also with a parish community that has blessed us beyond measure, and extended communities that continue to do the same.

I’ve only very recently sat down and contemplated a biblical theology of waiting – insofar as it applies to me and my family, as opposed to easy-to-imagine abstract biblical concepts. I’ve been forced to see myself in Abraham’s situation as he waits most of his life for Isaac, as Jacob waits twice as long as he expects for Rachel, as Joseph waits indefinitely to save his people from famine, as the Israelites wait for Pharoah to release them from bondage, and then wait again to enter the promised land. David waits until the Lord’s time to take the throne. The exiles in Babylon wait until they are able to return to Judea, and then continue to wait for a deliverer. The disciples wait for Jesus to rise up and claim his Messianic throne (thinking they knew what they were waiting for but having no clue). They wait after he has ascended for the coming of the Comforter. We wait, and wait, and wait, for that time when He shall come again to judge the living and the dead, whose Kingdom shall have no end.

Friends, thank you for waiting with us. Thank you for your comfort, your encouragement, your prayers, and your financial support. (By the way, if you have questions about your financial support in light of CVM’s administrative transition, and I haven’t contacted you, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at drjohncoatney_at_gmail_dot_com, or 918_707_0168.)

We love you all so much.

Thank you for all you do for us,John, Kristen, Charlie, Easton, Judah, and Titus 

Learning to worship without distracting others from their prayers.

Letter 2 (three weeks later):

Dear Friends,

Since our last letter, a LOT has happened! The waiting about which I spoke appears in many ways to have gone on hiatus, and we have big news!

The bad news first – the situation in Ethiopia grows grimmer by the day. The suffering in Tigray continues and grows with no relief in sight. Unrest and instability appear to be raising their heads throughout the rest of the country, in large part due to the situation in the north. Many people with whom I’ve spoken, including both native Ethiopians and Westerners who either still live or have recently lived in Ethiopia have expressed their concern for the safety and/or stability of a young family moving to and settling essentially anywhere in Ethiopia at this time.

In addition, I have spoken at length with one of Addis Ababa University’s most respected and established veterinary researchers, who has expressed his eagerness that I might come and work there, as well as his confidence that we can make this happen. The timeline for making this happen, however, looks to be over the course of several months, at best. This is due in large part to the mitigation measures taken by the government and universities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It appears that it is very difficult to get much accomplished (even more than is usual) at this time.

The very same week that I had this conversation with the researcher at Addis Ababa, I was made aware of a postdoctoral research position at Iowa State University. The Primary Investigator (PI) of the position is my PhD committee chairman and the PI of my prior postdoctoral work at ISU (i.e., he’s my former boss). We talked, and he recommended that, if I thought that this might be a good choice for our family, I consider applying for the position. I did so, and I have been offered the position.

The position begins on August 31, 2021 and lasts for one year, with the possibility of extending one additional year. The job consists primarily of writing educational materials concerning antimicrobial stewardship in swine production in international contexts. Some international travel is likely, assuming restrictions resulting from the pandemic don’t prevent it. 

The position is such that I will also be able to continue to prepare to return to Ethiopia when the time comes. I’m planning to make a couple of trips to Ethiopia over the next 12 months to work out the logistics of the return, which, God willing, with make for a smooth transition from Iowa to Ethiopia.

There have been several clear signs that this is the right call at this time, but perhaps clearest sign involves our “search” for housing. I put search in scare quotes because we really didn’t have to do any searching at all. We were made aware of a family who live in China but who keep a home near Ames, and who haven’t been able to return to China in the last year or so. The husband took a position in Colorado that provided a furnished house, and they were looking for someone to rent the house and cover costs while they’re gone. So we were able to rent this house, fully furnished, that is a five minute drive to John’s office, for the year. It’s quite a house, too – we’re told it was a stagecoach station in the late 1800’s, but it has been extremely well taken care of, and is quite cozy and protected against the heat and cold.

We have one vehicle (a Mazda M5 with about 130,000 miles on it), but will likely have to procure a second vehicle – preferably something large enough for all six of us plus luggage/groceries/etc. Our current vehicle fits all of us, but with almost no room for anything else. If anyone is aware of good deal on a family friendly vehicle, please let us know!

The staff at CVM have been extremely supportive of us during all of this transition. They have encouraged us to keep our focus on what’s most important, and provided invaluable counsel regarding staying focused on our calling. Going forward, I’ll be transferred from a full-time Field Worker to an Associate. As an Associate, our ministry (“Hands Outstretched”) will keep all funds that have been donated to us, and will continue to be able to receive donations. As long as I am an Associate, we will be able to access those funds for ministry-related costs, like language learning materials or trips to Ethiopia to work out contract and visa issues. Let me say that again for emphasis: all donations we’ve received or continue to receive will remain assigned to our ministry for use for that specific ministry. However, since we will be receiving a salary with benefits from Iowa State University, our overhead costs will be quite low during this time. With that in mind, we realize that many of you may choose to direct your donations to other causes at this time. When the time comes for us to begin transitioning back to full-time Field Worker status with CVM and we prepare to move to Ethiopia (or possibly elsewhere), we’ll be reaching out to each of you to invite you to consider supporting us once again.

I have to admit that Kristen and I have a lot of peace about this decision – probably more than we’ve had since returning from Ethiopia. We wish that we were there, and that we were able to help, but we wish more to be good stewards and cultivators of what we’ve been given, and this seems to be the best path by which we might do so. 

As always, if you have any questions, concerns, etc., please feel free and welcome to reach out to us (drjohncoatney_at_gmail_dot_com; 918_707_0168).

Thank you for all you do for us,

  • John, Kristen, Charlie, Easton, Judah, and Titus 
Judah Severus, catching up on the history of Dungeons & Dragons art.

The Jewish Roots of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord

A few small notes before I begin. As most of you know, we’re back in the States after several months in Ethiopia, on the recommendation of a number of people whose counsel we value. Please join us in praying that we can return soon, i.e., that both the U.S. and Ethiopia recover quickly from the impact of COVID-19 itself and from both governments’ attempts to implement policy that will help.

Last summer, I began to explore a book entitled The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church, by Ephraim Isaac. Shortly thereafter, we had baby number four, and my intention to work through this book fell to the wayside as we navigated our new addition and our move to Mekelle. That book is now on my shelf in Mekelle, awaiting our return, at which point I will endeavor to astound you with the insights I glean from Chapter Two. In the meantime:

When Kristen and I began attending Orthodox Church services (at All Saints in Chicago) in 2009, there were many aspects of worship that stood out as vastly different than anything we had experienced in the churches of Christ or other non-denominational (broadly Evangelical) churches with whom we had worshipped in the past. Incense, chanting, icons. . . it was a lot to take in. The most challenging characteristic of the Orthodox Church’s worship for us, however, was the attention given to Mary, frequently referred to as the Theotokos (Greek for “God-Bearer”). Her icons were prominent throughout the church, and prayers and honor were given to her at all services (though in hindsight, the proportion of prayers to Mary compared to prayers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is quite small).

This was Kristen’s greatest challenge as we inquired into the teachings and practices of the Orthodox Church, and it was only through seeing the role of Mary lived out in the faith of other Orthodox Christians (especially mothers) over the course of the next two years that Kristen was able to reconcile her discomfort with this new way of understanding and approaching the Mother of God.

I recently finished a book entitled “Perception and Identity: A Study of the Relationship between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Evangelical Churches in Ethiopia,” in which the author, Seblewengel Daniel, describes the history of encounter between these two entities. In this book, she asserts that the two greatest points of contention between Orthodox and Evangelical Christians in Ethiopia are 1) the way that the Scriptures are approached and understood; and 2) the place of Mary in the life of the Church and believers. The author asserted that the Orthodox Church’s veneration of Mary is often perceived as unbiblical and even idolatrous.

Her description of the difficulties that evangelicals have with the Orthodox Church’s treatment of the Theotokos reminded me of a book that I read earlier this year, published in 2018, called “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah” by Brant Pitre. This book does an incredible job showing how the ancient church’s understanding of and approach to Mary is rooted in Scripture, especially when read in light of the way that Jews read the Scriptures at the time of Christ (i.e., the way that Christ and the Apostles read the Scriptures).

Recognizing that how we approach Mary can be a stumbling block for Protestant Christians (and others), and having recently encountered this outstanding resource, I’ve decided to work through Pitre’s book on this blog, which may be of interest to some readers, but which will also help me better retain the wonderful biblical themes and connections found in Pitre’s work.

I should note up front that Pitre is a Roman Catholic scholar, and there are a few places where the Orthodox Church’s approach towards Mary differs from the Roman Catholic understanding. However, the premise and goal of the book make it well worth examining in depth despite these differences.

Pitre begins the book by discusses how, although he grew up a devout Roman Catholic, praying the rosary as a child and teenager, in college he was challenged by his then-girlfriend’s Southern Baptist pastor to examine the Scriptures for indications that Mary should be honored as she is in the Catholic Church. He struggled to find any Scriptural indications, and while he remained in the Roman Catholic Church, his devotion to Mary essentially dwindled to nothing.

However, when he began his doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame, he discovered three key things that completely changed the way he understood the place of the Mother of God in Christian life. First, he discovered that doctrine about Mary, including approaching her for intercession, was both very ancient and found everywhere throughout the world where Christ was worshipped. Next, he learned about the direct and absolutely necessary connection between the Church’s teaching about Mary and the Church’s teaching about Christ. Mariology is part and parcel with Christology. Finally, and most importantly, he discovered ancient Jewish and early Christian methods of reading the Scriptures that demonstrate how ancient Christians actually received their understanding of the person and role of Mary from the Old Testament.

The rest of the book shows various ways in which the Old Testament reveals teachings about Mary. Pitre shows how we find these teachings by reading the Bible typologically – looking at Old Testament prefigurations and New Testament fulfillments (like how in 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul tells us that the rock in Exodus 17:6 was Christ). He argues that “You simply cannot understand Mary without looking at her in her first-century Jewish context,” and that this is where the Church gets its teaching about Mary.

I plan to do a blog post about each chapter:

  1. Introduction (discussed above)
  2. The New Eve
  3. The New Ark
  4. The Queen Mother
  5. The Perpetual Virgin
  6. The Birth of the Messiah
  7. The New Rachel
  8. At the Foot of the Cross

I welcome your thoughts and feedback, either where I share my posts on Facebook or at my email address (found here).

The Name Game

I’ve been interested in names since I first saw Pulp Fiction in the theater. There’s a scene where Bruce Willis’s character, Butch, is asked by a woman what his name means. His reply: “I’m an American, honey, our names don’t mean shit.” Being familiar with many instances (especially in the Bible) in which names were given intentionally, purposefully, and meaningfully, Butch’s comment has always seemed unfortunate and regrettable to me (especially because there seems to be some truth to it).

When we joined the Orthodox Church, I was delighted to learn that choosing a name was essentially a prayer. We give the child a saint’s name, and in doing so, we are asking that person to pray for our child in a special way. However, we are also asking God to guide our child so that they become united to Christ is ways similar to their namesake. There is, of course, an aesthetic motivation as well. This is where Kristen has often held me in check, keeping me from getting too weird or obscure. For all of these reasons, we’ve taken the process of naming very seriously.

Given the arrival and naming of Titus Ulysses on June 2nd, I thought that perhaps a few folks would be interested to hear about why we’ve chosen the names we’ve chosen for our boys.


Charles Maximus

Charlie was named for my dad’s dad, Charles Gus Lee Coatney, and for Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century Greek saint.

At 94, my Paw-Paw is my last living grandparent. I spent a lot of my childhood with him and my Maw-Maw, and my introduction to Jesus and to the Bible are essentially due to the two of them.

Charles is the French form of the German name Karl, which means “man” or “free man.”

I could do a whole blog post (or 10) about Maximus the Confessor. He’s most well known for his defense of dyothelitism – the existence of both a divine and human will in the person of Jesus. This articulation allowed for the resolution of a major dispute in church history at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 681. Prior to this council, most of the leadership in the Church argued that Christ had only a divine will. When Maximus spoke out against them, the Emperor and Patriarch had his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off. This earned him the title “Confessor,” one who holds to the truth in the face of torture. Maximus died in exile in 662, roughly 20 years before he was to be vindicated at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Maximus is the Latin term for “greatest.” I’ve had more than one Latin scholar jokingly point out that while Charlemagne (Charles Magnus) means “Charles the Great,” or even “great man,” Charles Maximus is “Charles the Greatest,” or “the greatest man.”

Judah Severus

Judah was named for Judah Maccabee; his middle name is a little more complicated, but there are several Severuses (Severii?) that led us to choose it.

Judah Maccabee was one of the sons of Mattathias the Hasmonean who led the revolt in 167 BC against the (Greek) Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Briefly, the kingdom of Israel split in 931 BC after the death of Solomon, and the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. The land of Israel and Judah then fell to the Medes and Persians before Alexandar the Great swept through in 332 BC, initiating the Hellinization (aka “Greekification”) of the Middle East. The Jews were never at peace with this arrangement, and were a thorn in their Greek rulers’ side. Antiochus, frustrated with the Jews, pushed back too hard, leading to the revolt led by Mattathius and his sons. Judah was the very successful military leader of the rebellion, earning the name Maccabee (“Hammer”) for his military prowess. He is responsible for the rededication of the Temple and the institution of Hanukkah. He was a man of action, and little of his speech is recorded, but in one speech he gave before a battle he is quoted as stating, “They trust in arms and acts of valor, but we trust in the Lord our God.” He ultimately died in battle in 160 BC.

Judah comes from a Hebrew word for “praise.” Because Judah was the patriarch from whom David’s line of kings would come, it was an extremely popular Hebrew/Jewish name. The name Judas comes from the Greek form of Judah; this name became understandably unpopular after the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. When the New Testament was translated into English, translators shortened the name to Jude for the biblical letter (the one right before Revelation), to distinguish it from the unpopular Judas. We decided to stick with the Hebrew form.

We will readily acknowledge that the name Severus came to our attention by way of Severus Snape. As I began to learn more about ancient Christian history, I continued to encounter names that I’d known previously from the Harry Potter books; names like Hermione, Nymphadora, and Severus. There are several saints named Severus in the Orthodox Church. The most well known Severus in church history, though, is Severus of Antioch, who is a saint in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but is considered a heretic by the Eastern Orthodox Church. He argued against the wording of the two natures (divine and human) of Christ. His writings, however, have been very useful as the Oriental and Eastern churches have sought to reconcile their Christology over the last 50 or so years. Ultimately, Judah is baptized as Judah Maccabee, but is also named Severus as a nod to the various saints given this name as well as to the hope of reconciliation between the Oriental and Eastern churches.

Severus is a Latin term meaning “severe.” To date, Judah Severus lived up to his more exactly than any of the other boys.


Easton Elias

Easton was given his first name by his biological parents; we chose Elias as his middle/baptized name after the prophet Elijah.

Easton is an Old English name meaning “east-facing settlement.” We never questioned changing Easton’s first name, since he was three when he was placed with us and nearly four by the time he was legally adopted. In the Orthodox Church, we traditionally face the east when we pray. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, the most well known being based on Matthew 24:27, “For as the lightening comes from the east, and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Saint Basil the Great wrote in the fourth century that this was an ancient practice even at that time.  We therefore take Easton as our prayer that he will grow to be a man of prayer as well.

After Moses, Elias/Elijah is arguably the most celebrated man of God in the Old Testament. He lived in Israel the ninth century BC, and was called the “troubler of Israel” by the King, Ahab, against whom he spoke and acted out against regularly (along with Ahab’s wife, Jezebel). His stories are contained primarily in the first book of Kings (III Kingdoms in the Greek OT). We chose him for his courage, and for his ability to speak truth to power. If you’ve never read the story of his challenge to the priests of Baal, I highly you take a few minutes and read 1 Kings 18:20-40 right now.

Elijah comes from the Hebrew term “My God is the LORD (YHWH).” Elias comes from the Greek form of Elijah.

Titus Ulysses

Titus was named for the recipient of Paul’s pastoral letter, and for the hero of Homer’s Odyssey.

Church tradition tells us that Titus was born on Crete, but traveled to Judea upon hearing that a great prophet (Jesus) was teaching and performing miracles. He encountered Christ, witnessed his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, and was present at Pentecost. He was later baptized by the apostle Paul and was one of his closest disciples. He traveled frequently with and for Paul, and was eventually made bishop of Crete. He died peacefully at the age of 97.

The name Ulysses comes from the Latin form of Odysseus. The hero of Homer’s Odyssey is a total boss, and overcomes adversity against all odds. Ulysses is the middle name of Park and Recreation’s Ron Swanson, and Scrubs’ Dr. Perry Cox. What really got us thinking about the name, though, is the eponymous song by Josh Garrels:

The song got me thinking about Ulysses as a type of Christ, overcoming all adversity to win his bride back from her wicked and unworthy suitors. At the end he sings,

So tie me to the mast of this old ship
And point me home.
Before I lose the one I love,
Before my chance is gone.
I want to hold her in my arms.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses ties himself to the mast of his ship as it passes by the sirens, whose song draws sailors to their doom. His soldiers had plugged their ears as the shipped passed, but someone needed to be able to tell them when the sirens’ song had ended. I’d never thought Christologically about the story of Ulysses being tied to the mast of the ship before I heard this song, but the idea of tying ourselves to the cross to prevent being drawn to our doom by temptation comes across powerfully when I hear it.

There is a saint Ulyssses/Odysseus the New Martyr, but I haven’t been able to learn anything about him, other than that he exists.

There’s some serious irony with the name Titus Ulysses, because both names have unclear meanings. We simply don’t know what either name means, and given the importance of names having meaning, this seemed problematic at first. However, we’ve come to a point in our understanding of naming that we so closely connect the name with the person for whom the child is being named, that the meaning is found in the person. Titus means disciple of God; Ulysses means one who overcomes adversity; who ties himself to the mast in order to overcome temptation.

Marriage is Hard, Guys

Before we get started: We have been thinking that, for our 11th anniversary, we want to write about how hard marriage is. We want to be vulnerable. We want to write about what we believe marriage is for and why we’re determined to stick with it, in spite of how difficult it is. What we don’t want, in any way, shape, or form, is for someone to read this as a judgment against them. We’re writing from our particular context. Our marriage is not anyone else’s marriage, and if you or someone you love is divorced, we do not presume to judge your decision or the reasons behind it. We love you, and we hurt with you for what may have been lost. Please know that the purpose of this post is not to pass judgment, but to share our reasons for being/staying married, and, God willing, to encourage others.


At DoubleShot last month.

Today, we celebrate our eleventh wedding anniversary. Last year, we wrote about our celebration of the sacrament of marriage on our tenth wedding anniversary, when we were crowned. This year, we decided to sit in our favorite Tulsa coffee shop (thanks, DoubleShot!) and write about how difficult marriage can be, and how, because of what we believe marriage is, those difficulties are actually an important part of what marriage is, and will potentially (God willing) lead us closer to Christ and to one another.

We met at the Church of Christ University Center in Stillwater, OK, while Kristen was working as a hairstylist and John was in vet school. We got to know one another through a mutual group of friends, and spent time together, but neither of us wanted to have a serious relationship. John graduated in 2005, and was subsequently stationed in Vicenza, Italy; in the fall of 2006, Kristen moved to Chicago to work in a salon there. We stayed in touch during this time, but shortly after Kristen moved to Chicago, John realized that he wanted to spend his life with Kristen, and spent the next six months convincing her that this was a good idea. We got engaged in March 2007, when John was in the States for training. Kristen visited John in Europe for two weeks that fall; this was the only time we were able to see one another during our engagement. We did marriage counseling with an Army chaplain, over the phone. We met in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 29, 2008; Kristen had arrived two days early, but John arrived that morning, in his Army dress blues. We met at the hotel, stored our luggage, and headed to city hall, where we were married. We spent the next three weeks making our way south by train to Vicenza, where John finalized his move from there to Naval Station Great Lakes, just north of Chicago.

We both remember the first six months of married life in Chicago as going well. We were learning how to settle disagreements, and to reconcile when things got heated, of course, but everything still had that newlywed glow. At least, that’s how we remember it 11 years later. However, in the fall of 2008, John was informed that he would be going to Iraq for a year, and that he had three weeks before leaving. He left on November 29, on our six month anniversary.


Seeing They Might Be Giants in Chicago shortly after returning from Iraq (2009).

It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact that this deployment would have on our marriage and our lives. John was a veterinarian, taking care of military working dogs; he was not a direct combatant. Still, being apart for that year was extremely difficult. When we did speak on the phone (Skype/FaceTime weren’t readily accessible), we often got into arguments over what, in retrospect, were usually silly things. When John returned in the fall of 2009, we felt extremely disconnected.

This was compounded by the fact that John had been exploring the Orthodox Church in Iraq, and becoming more and more convinced that it was the best place for us. Kristen was not at all comfortable in the Orthodox Church. The year following John’s return from Iraq was incredibly difficult. We fought about everything – how we spent time; how we spent money; whether to drive or take public transportation; where to go to church; whether and when to start being open to having kids…


Hiking in Iowa on our eighth anniversary (2016).

We didn’t fight well, either. We have very different ways of dealing with conflict, and while it’s gotten better over the course of 11 years, we still struggle with this. The first few months after John’s return, during particularly heated arguments, Kristen would ask if John wanted or was thinking about divorce. At some point during that time, at a time when we were not fighting, we sat down and agreed that we would not allow divorce to be something that we talked about or considered, either individually or together. We agreed to unequivocally trust one another’s commitment to our marriage. This was probably the single most important conversation we’ve had as a married couple.


At a friend’s wedding, November 2018.

Meanwhile, our growing involvement with the Orthodox Church (including Kristen’s slow but steady acceptance of and appreciation for it) led us to a deeper understanding of what Christian marriage is. We discuss this in part in last year’s post, by examining the prayers found in the crowning service. In terms of learning to work through (and even benefit from) our struggles, we’ve been thinking a lot about marriage as martyrdom. Ultimately, the mystery of marriage is tied to the mystery of Christ’s relationship with his church, as Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians. We are called to imitate Christ’s love for his church in our love for our spouse – to be willing to give up everything for the other, who in all honesty does not deserve this sacrifice on our part. We do this in order to participate with Christ, to become ever more like him; to be ever more united to him. This is the true purpose of marriage: salvation.

Marriage is still hard. We still fight about lots of things – how we spend time, how we spend money, how to raise kids… We still have very different ways of dealing with conflict, and we continue to strive to learn how to navigate conflict and to reconcile in service to one another, and to give ever more selflessly (something that having children has helped us learn, without question). However, as we continue to struggle, and to discover new struggles, we do so with the understanding that the struggles are opportunities for us to learn how to die to ourselves every day (usually multiple times a day), to love the other selflessly, and (by means of his grace) to unite ourselves to Christ.


Veterinary Antimicrobial Usage in Central Ethiopia

In this post I’ll summarize a recently published paper out of Addis Ababa University’s College of Veterinary Medicine on one of my primary areas of interest in veterinary research: antimicrobial stewardship and resistance. But first, an exciting update:

Welcome to the Party, Easton Elias!


On Friday, May 17th, Easton officially joined our family, as Easton Elias Coatney. He will be baptized Elias, probably at the same time as boy #4 (aka Quartus). Elias is the Greek form of Elijah, who (after Moses) is arguably the most faithful and powerful prophet in the Old Testament. Two of my favorite stories concerning Elijah are his role in God’s victory over the prophets of Baal, and God’s revelation of himself to Elijah when he was hiding from Ahab and Jezebel, the wicked rulers of Israel.

Easton is three years old, and will turn four in August. He enjoys sharks, singing, and basically anything that his big brother Charlie is interested in. We’re grateful to God for the opportunity to add Easton to our family, and for what he is teaching us as adoptive parents.

The finalization of the adoption removes one of the major hurdles keeping us from moving to Mekelle as soon as possible. Now we can begin slogging through the process of obtaining the necessary documentation to prove that the Easton is ours for visa purposes in Ethiopia.  The other major hurdles are the birth of Quartus and completion of the month-long training that we had to cancel in April due to the passing of my father.

Veterinary medicinal product usage among food animal producers and its health implications in Central Ethiopia

I’ve decided that I’ll summarize these veterinary papers utilizing the research paper format, so that (hopefully) my summary is easy to follow. My intent is to distill each section such that someone with only a basic understanding of veterinary science (i.e., can tell the difference between a cow and a horse) can understand what they’re reading.

This article (see the photo at the top of the post for bibliographic information) was published in BMC Veterinary Research by researchers at Addis Ababa University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (commonly referred to by it’s location, Bishoftu in Oromiya, or Debre Zeit in Amharic), Utrecht University and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and Kansas State University.

The abstract states that the purpose of the study was “to assess knowledge, awareness, and practices related to drug use and resistance in food animals among the farmers in and around Bishoftu town.” Questionnaires and visits to local pharmacies were the primary means of investigation. The abstract concludes: “there is a general lack of awareness among food animal owners about the correct use of antibiotics [drugs to combat bacterial infections] and anthelmintics [drugs to combat parasitic worms].”


Here the authors explain why it matters whether or to what extent local livestock producers understand the relationship between antimicrobial stewardship and resistance. They discuss the fact that most antimicrobials (this is the catch-all term that includes antibiotics, anthelmintics, and any other drugs that fight bacteria, viruses, and parasites) used in animals are also used in humans, and that the development in resistance in livestock can result in resistance in humans as well.

The article assumes an understanding of how resistance occurs. For those who aren’t clear on this and who are interested, here’s a very brief (and, necessarily, oversimplified) primer: Every antimicrobial drug has a “mechanism of action;” that is, it kills the microbe in a specific way. Maybe it attacks the cell wall, or it stops the microbe’s DNA from replicating, or prevents the microbe from producing the proteins it needs to live or reproduce. However, some microbes may possess the means to “defeat” a particular drug’s mechanism of action. For example, if a drug that attacks the cell wall needs to bind to the cell wall in order to attack it, then a bacteria that is able to prevent that binding can’t be attacked, and is therefore “resistant” to that drug.

Bacteria may inherently possess this resistant characteristic, or it may be the result of a spontaneous genetic mutation, or the gene responsible for the resistance could be easily transferred between bacteria (for example, on a piece of genetic material called a plasmid). In any case, when a drug “works,” and kills off all the susceptible bacteria (maybe 99% of the total population), and the signs of illness/infection disappear, that one percent of resistant bacteria that are left reproduce, filling the void that the susceptible bacteria left, so that when the signs of illness/infection reoccur, the drug that worked previously no longer works.

Understanding how resistance works in reality is much more complicated than it is in theory, particularly because there are so many variables. Every drug works differently; every species of bacteria/virus/etc. might respond differently, and different means of resistance will occur even within the same species. Every drug and every microbe will potentially act differently in different species of animals, so that we really can’t understand how resistance to a specific drug in a specific type of bacteria in a cow will affect resistance to that drug in that bacteria in a human without studying that specific combination.

We do know enough to be concerned about these interconnections, though, such that we recognize the need for good antimicrobial stewardship, and that we do all that we can to minimize the development of antimicrobial resistance – particularly in drugs that are important in human health.

Materials and Methods

The authors interviewed 120 dairy, beef, and poultry owners around the city of Bishoftu. These farmers were selected randomly and interviewed face-to-face in the local language. Another 100 animal owners were interviewed at veterinary clinics or pharmacies in the area.


A lot of interesting data was collected in this paper; see the paper itself for the details. The most significant results include the following:

80% of the respondents were unable to define what an antimicrobial is or its purpose. Only 14% of respondents were aware of the existence and consequences antimicrobial resistance, and of that 14%, only 9% were aware that irresponsible use of antimicrobials in animals could lead to resistance in humans.

66% of those purchasing antimicrobials received counseling on usage from animal health assistants; 10% from veterinarians; 6% from non-animal health professionals, and the remaining 18% received no counseling on the proper use of antimicrobials.

70% of owners did understand the information they received from drug dispensers, and were unable to read/understand the drug labels, which were in English. Often the farmers identified the drugs they used only by color.

Antimicrobials were used indiscriminately, without adequate diagnosis, and treatment failure was extremely common. Withdrawal times (allowing for the drug to leave the animal’s system before its meat or milk is consumed by people) were ignored. Antimicrobials were frequently sold without prescription papers, and illegal drug vendors who improperly stored drugs were common.


The primary public health concerns based on the results of this study include the failure of medications, development of antimicrobial resistance, and occurrence of drug residues in food animal products (which may cause hypersensitivity/allergic reactions, damage to genetic material, or increase the risk for certain cancers in humans). The authors encourage the Ethiopian Veterinary Drug and Feed Administration and Control Authority to improve its surveillance of illegal drug vendors, and to raise awareness among livestock owners about the need for better antimicrobial stewardship.

This paper is useful to me as a researcher because it gives me support for potentially creating programs that will improve antimicrobial stewardship in Ethiopia. A key part of any veterinary college’s research program is extension: the application of cutting-edge research among practicing veterinarians and producers.

I’m excited to get started helping the Ethiopian veterinary community in whatever capacity I’m able.

Origins of Ethiopian Civilization (Ephraim Isaac)

As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be providing more frequent updates here, followed by a summary/commentary on books/articles concerning either the Ethiopian Orthodox Church or veterinary medicine in Ethiopia. I’ll use headings so that readers can quickly skim the portions that interest them (if any). 🙂


We were notified this morning that we have a court date where E.’s adoption will be finalized! I’ll definitely be giving more details in my next post! The baby’s still due June 13. If the baby comes early enough, we’ll try to get into the summer session of MTI in Colorado Springs, but it seems unlikely that the baby will come early enough (although you never know) and that there will be an opening (these courses tend to fill up pretty far in advance).

Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time at DoubleShot Coffee, trying to write and keep up with the day to day recurring tasks associated with our work. I rarely spend a full day working on these things, though, as doctor’s appointments, E.’s counseling appointments, and Charlie’s pre-K schedule require lots of breaks most days. I try to take advantage of this time in our lives in which I’m able to spend this much time during the day with the boys, and with my mom. Honestly, though, my first reaction when I’m pulled away from my “work” is usually to be grumpy and resentful. Thank God that Kristen is patient and willing to put up with me.


Ancient stelae from the Axumite empire. 

Chapter 1: Origins of Ethiopian Civilization

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ll be working through Ephraim Isaac’s The Ethiopian Orthodox Täwahïdo Church, published in 2013 by Red Sea Press.

Front Matter

Before I summarize the first chapter, I’ll mention a couple of things about the front matter of the book. In the preface, Isaac states that the book is “a modest attempt to give a brief and purely objective description of the interesting history of the Ethiopian Church, its beliefs and practices.” Now, I’ve spent enough time studying hermeneutics to know that there’s no such thing as a purely objective description. It’s apparent in how Isaac approaches his topic that it’s driven by his interests and priorities. There’s no problem with this approach (in fact, it’s unavoidable), but it shouldn’t be called purely objective.

Isaac writes a personal note along with his acknowledgements that sheds light on his credentials in terms of writing about a church of which he is not a member. He discusses how, when growing up in Nedjio, Wallaga, Ethiopia, Orthodox clergy would often visit his father (a Jew from Yemen) and offer praise and admiration for his Jewish heritage. He goes on to say that as an adult, he was blessed with close relationships with a number of Ethiopian Orthodox clergy, many of whom he worked with in a professional capacity (as a Semitic language scholar), and that he even served as a mediator when a number of bishops disagreed about an administrative matter. He also emphasizes the doctrinal, liturgical, and historical unity of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches, and indicates that nearly of what he writes applies to both.

Chapter One

Isaac’s goal in this initial chapter is to demonstrate that while Ethiopia and South Arabia share a “common cultural sphere” since prehistoric times, the assumption made by many Western scholars that Ethiopian civilization is the result of South Arabian influence is based on “erroneous historical, linguistic, and archeological assumptions.” He then goes one to address five areas in which these assumptions have been made.

First, he argues that it cannot be assumed that Semitic languages (the language family that includes Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, and several Ethiopian languages) originated in the Near East. There is an assumption that the Ethiopian Semitic languages were brought to Ethiopia from South Arabian conquerors. He states that some, including Russian Assyriologist Diakonoff, propose an African origin for Proto-Hamito-Semitic (from which Semitic languages hypothetically derive), and that it is therefore possible that some Semitic languages may be indigenous to Ethiopia.

Second, he claims historical difficulties in the suggestion of a South Arabian migration into Ethiopia – primarily that during the time period in which this is suggested to have happened, there is clear evidence that different languages were spoken on the eastern and western sides of the Red Sea. If there had been a mass migration, the language would have been the same.

He also discusses here an important term in Ethiopian (and Eritrean) culture and history: habasha. This term refers to Ethiopians and Eritreans who share a number of cultural features, including Semitic languages (today, primarily Amharic and Tigrinya), religion (the Orthodox Täwahïdo Church), and food (e.g., injera). Habasha is word that gave rise to the Western term Abyssinia. There is a popular hypothesis that the name “hbst,” which appears in some ancient Sabaean scripts, is the name of the South Arabian tribe that migrated to Ethiopia; Isaac argues that this hypothesis is purely speculative. Interestingly, I was told by a tour guide in northern Ethiopia that the term “habesha” actually means “the color of coffee when milk is added,” indicating that Habesha have a lighter skin color than surrounding peoples (which tends to be true).

Third, he addresses evidence gleaned from ancient inscriptions found in both Ethiopia and South Arabia. Essentially, he argues that while these inscriptions share “a common cultural heritage,” there is no evidence that this indicates a South Arabian origin for the inscriptions found in Ethiopia.

Fourth, Isaac addresses the nature of the Ethiopic script, which he says is “a cursive form of monumental Sabaean.” His key point for this argument is that while South Arabians did not adapt and adopt the Sabaean script, adopting instead the Arabic script after the rise of Islam, “the manner in which the Ethiopians used Sabaean, with freedom and originality, hardly betrays the behavior of borrowers.”

Finally, Isaac spends the second half of the chapter addressing ancient literary references to the Sabaeans, especially the Biblical story of the Queen of Sheba. I don’t have space to discuss the significance of the Queen of Sheba for Habesha culture; for those who aren’t familiar, take a look at this. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary states that the most plausible location for Sheba is the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula (present day Yemen). Isaac argues that this does not preclude the possibility that the Queen of Sheba was African. He provides arguments that show that Sheba may have been in the Horn of Africa from the book of Genesis. He points out that Yemen was “an Ethiopian domain over two thousand years ago,” noting that Homer’s Odyssey refers to Poseidon’s journey to “Ethiopia, divided in two” (i.e., by the Red Sea). He suggests that the mention of “all the kings of Arabia” in 1 Kings and Jeremiah suggest that there were no queens in Arabia at this time (one of my least favorite of his arguments). He points out that “Josephus, a number of the Church Fathers, and the Ethiopians themselves” claim that the Queen of Sheba was African.

He concludes: “serious methodological questions must be raised concerning theories that seek to reconstruct the origins of the Ethiopian civilization from South Arabia. . . . we would prefer to view, at least hypothetically, South Arabia as a common cultural sphere with Ethiopia from prehistoric times, and nothing more.”