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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Head Games

It was a strange interview.

A young man, hoping to serve as the naturalist on the 1831 voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle as it surveyed the coastline of South America, sat before British Captain Robert FitzRoy.

FitzRoy was impressed. This candidate seemed both bright and congenial. But something was wrong. It was the young man’s nose. In the captain’s estimation, it wasn’t the nose of a real naturalist.

Years later, FitzRoy admitted to the young man that he almost turned him away because of that facial feature. In the end, he decided to throw caution to the wind. He went ahead and invited Charles Darwin to join his crew. Even if we don’t applaud all of Darwin’s scientific or philosophical conclusions, no one doubts that he belongs in the ranks of history’s greatest naturalists.

So, what’s the deal with his nose?

Darwin’s nose was perfectly normal. But he lived during a time when a number of esteemed anatomists believed they had cracked the code of human character and behavior.

All you had to do was study someone’s head.

Phrenologists (popularly known as “bump doctors”) believed they could accurately discern someone’s personal strengths and weaknesses by assessing the bumps on their head. Over time, the human skull was painstakingly mapped to provide a guidebook for this process.

Practitioners of craniometry, on the other hand, dismissed phrenologists as hopeless quacks, since they took a much more scientific approach to the measurement of skulls and brains.

Today we know that both disciplines were much ado about nothing.

Bill Bryson writes in his book The Body, “No other part of the body has received more misguided attention, or proved more resistant to scientific understanding, than the head. The nineteenth century in particular was something of a golden age in this respect.”

Believers in the discipline of physiognomy claimed that you could tell someone’s level of intelligence by measuring their lips, ears, or foreheads. You could guess someone’s future – and thus know whether they would make a good business partner, good friend, or good spouse – by examining the distance between their eyes.

Captain FitzRoy believed there was such a thing as a “naturalist’s nose.” Charles Darwin apparently didn’t have one.

Dr. Barnard Davis (1801-1881), an English physician, became the world’s supreme authority on the shape of the human skull. His private collection numbered 1,540, which Bryson points out exceeded the total number of skulls in all the world’s other institutional collections combined. One has to wonder what trick-or-treaters might have thought when his door swung open on Halloween.

Davis, like most of his peers, had decided in advance that the skulls of dark-skinned ethnicities would no doubt display “cephalic peculiarities” which indicated moral deficiencies.

Such people should be treated “not as criminals but as dangerous idiots.”

Here we should point out, with sadness and not a little anger, that most European doctors and scientists of that time were openly committed to the doctrine of their own racial superiority. In the strange worlds of phrenology, craniometry, and physiognomy, it was easy enough to “find” whatever data they needed to support their biases.

A century and a half of genuine scientific research has toppled the notion that people who look different must therefore be different in character and intelligence.

But old ideas die hard. The odds are good that we’ve all heard someone say, “I knew just by looking at him that I couldn’t trust him.”

Perhaps we have said such words ourselves.

The search for an infallible people-sorting mechanism – a way to tell the Good from the Bad from the Safe from the Threatening – has turned into something of a quest for the Relational Holy Grail. Should we pay attention to skin color, noses, or bumps on the skull?

It should come as no surprise that Jesus had something to say about this.

Relational discernment doesn’t come down to how people look. And we can easily be fooled by what people say. The true test of someone’s character is what they do. “A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit,” he declares at the end of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:17).

Here’s how Eugene Peterson captures the wider context of that verse in his paraphrase called The Message:

“Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned” (Matthew 7:15-20).

In the tumult and chaos of our times – with every headline seeming to scream, “You should be wary and afraid of other people” – how can we cultivate a healthy measure of trust?

Here are two measuring sticks for character.

If someone speaks, do they tell the truth? If someone makes a promise, do they actually keep it?

Those are signs of good fruit that can only come from a good tree. We can increasingly entrust our hearts to such people.

And if we ourselves make a practice of telling the truth and keeping our promises, others may just give their hearts to us, too.

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