Middle Eastern Idol

As the Passover-Easter complex of holidays approaches, our stern, scientific face turns toward the more human sensibilities of religion and its impact on our lives. PBS recently aired the Nova special The Bible’s Buried Secrets (originally aired in 2008) and when a colleague began asking me about it I figured I’d better watch it. As an erstwhile biblical scholar there wasn’t much here that was new to me, but one aspect of the program bothered me. Well, to be honest several things bothered me, but I’ll focus on one. When referring to the gods of the Canaanites, among whom the program readily admitted the Israelites should be counted, they were invariably referred to as “idols.” The problem with this terminology goes back to an issue I frequently addressed with my students—the term “idol” is a way of demeaning the gods of a different religion. Implicit in the word is the assumption of the monotheistic worldview and its attendant problems.

The Bible’s Buried Secrets seemed to adopt an overly optimistic view of the monotheistic religions sharing the same god while everyone else worshipped idols. The view is as fraught as it is simplistic. Historically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are certainly connected. Each recognizes in the others a glimmer of its own theology and outlook, but the concept of deity has shifted somewhat at each development. Judaism and Islam are rather aniconic, especially compared to many varieties of Christianity where images are allowed, or even encouraged. It is difficult to grab the attention of the magazine-reading public with an image of invisibility on the cover. It should come as no surprise that some Jews and Muslims believe Christian images to be, well, idols.

An idol moment?

An idol moment?

The word “idol” is by nature pejorative. Ancient people were sophisticated polytheists. That statue that represented a deity was not thought to be that deity in any absolute sense. Rituals assured the ancients that they were instilling some aspect of divinity into the statues they used, making them sacred in the same way a Christian consecrates a church building. What’s more, it is natural for people to seek a visual focus for its devotion. It is difficult to conceptualize the Almighty as a person without giving it (often him) a body. Islam, especially, has been adamant that this can’t be done, and looking back at Christian practice it is sure to see idols abounding. As the holy days begin for our vernal celebrations, we should perhaps use the opportunity to rethink such religious vocabulary since every orthodoxy is someone else’s paganism.

2 responses to “Middle Eastern Idol

  1. I thought it curious that, inter alia, monotheism was one of “The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels” (Cahill., T.), and curiouser still that the concept of linear time would be thought a “gift” (What? It’s Easter? Again?).

    The cycle of life/death is evidenced all around me, “camping out” as I am for a year, and idle spirits visit me in this idyllic wooded setting No crosse or plastc jesus here — Just a few idolatrous fetish objects of children of men…

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    • That is a curious idea, Brent. I wasn’t sure why they’d tapped Cahill, other than the popularity of his books. He’s not a biblical scholar like most of the others interviewed. I suppose the gift language is PC.

      I’ve never been interviewed for a documentary, but I was once interviewed for a promotional video for Nashotah House. I was rather surprised to see which sound bytes they pulled to use from what I’d said. Once the words are out, they can be made to mean anything…

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