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.

Alas, Babylon!

Religions tend to be backward looking. That’s not intended to be a universal, nor a condemnation. Few would want to admit that their religion is new, especially in this scientific era. We tend to believe the truth is old. But not too old. In the monotheistic traditions, real religion started with Abraham, or more properly, Abram. Beyond that we were all pagans. One of the sad stories brought to my attention this past week involves the IS (you know it’s bad when we have to use acronyms) decided to destroy Nimrud, one of the ancient Mesopotamian cities that has helped us understand whence we’ve come. In an era of political and social correctness, we’ve decided that the right to keep artifacts rests with those who’s heritage it reflects. The future, however, is just as unstable as the past. As someone who has spent many years trying to understand the material remains of our pre-Judeo-Christian heritage, it is a tragedy of the first degree to have unthinking guardians destroy what can’t be replaced because they represent “idols.”

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, I used to begin by asking students what the difference was between an idol and a god. At first it seems that idols are images, and, by definition, offensive to the religion that names them “idols.” Then, as we probed deeper, it would become clear that all religions use images of some description, and that likenesses of deities were considered to be gods in sophisticated ways. Those who built the pyramids and the great walls of Babylon were not simpletons. Their images, many of them powerful still today, were psychological expressions, often backed with theological finesse. Even Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, and they worship the same deity.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religion for such wanton destruction. All religions breed extremists. Extremists, like those who believe science can explain everything, are simply drawing their reasoning out to its ultimate conclusion. That’s not to condone their actions, but to try to comprehend them. All religious groups have those who slip past the bounds of conventionality into the realm where an all-consuming zeal requires excessive action to be noticed. Human beings are complex that way. A pagan philosophy of ancient Greece held that all things in moderation was the ideal. Religions with a concept of Hell, however, breed excessive ideologies. As a child I would have done anything to avoid Hell. In fact, with the little power that children are accorded, I conscientiously did what I could. When I wasn’t distracted by the other attractions life seemed to offer. If, perhaps, we considered that socio-economic justice would go a long way toward engendering a kind of contentment, we might find less extremists in the world. No matter what we do, however, we will not find ourselves in a world without religion.

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Imagine Images

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Thus spake the Lord one day long ago. So the Bible says. The problem is that humans are visually oriented. We teach our young to read by enticing them with books with pretty pictures—images that captivate. We make things that are pleasant to see, some of them are even graven. I used to ask my students what the difference was between a god and an idol. The answer is, of course, perception. “Idol” is a word that implies falsehood. The item represented is somehow divine, but is not actually divine. There are ways around the rules, of course.

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I spent many years in the United Methodist Church. Many people I knew claimed that the local Catholics were idol worshippers, and when I entered a Catholic church for the first time I was struck by the graven images that seemed to stand in blatant contradiction to the second commandment. How could this not be a direct violation of divine orders? After all, this wasn’t some minor infraction—it was one of the very commandments! Back in my Methodist context, I began to wonder, however. We had crosses, some of them in the round, right up there on the altar. True, there was no corpus on our crucifix, but that seemed to be a handy bit of casuistry. Human beings naturally convert images to idols. We all knew, Protestants though we were, that you should never take a sacred object out to the streets and treat it profanely. An image in a sacred venue could be an idol.

Over the years it seems that the strictures of the ten commandments might have been relaxed just a little. Collectively as a culture, the real has become more and more virtual. We buy our movies, music and books in electronic format. We play our games on computers. In such a context a physical image may seem somehow less real. Our idols have been digitized. It doesn’t seem like the Bible was looking that far ahead when attempting to create an exhaustive list of what might anger the divine. After all, electricity wouldn’t be discovered for millennia. Reality was dry, dusty, and deadly. The prohibition was against physical images. It is no longer an issue for many in the Judeo-Christian tradition that a statue or an icon might be a sign of piety rather than profanity. Things seem to have come full circle when I find a statue of John Wesley, nearly of bobble-head proportions, looking at me with eyes seeking prevenient grace. I guess the powers that be might just be willing to overlook even Methodists gone native.

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Iconic Book

A recent Associated Press story celebrated the achievement of Phillip Patterson. In an age when we just can’t get enough technology, when we live with, sleep with, and dream of electronically generated reality, Mr. Patterson was feted for his arcane accomplishment. Decidedly low tech, at that. After four years Phillip Patterson has finished copying a book, word-for-word. I don’t even have to mention which book, because we already know it can only be the book that Americans recognize without reading. It is the iconic book. The holy book. Sometimes working up to 14 hours a day on the quest, according to AP, Patterson was not undertaking a spiritual journey here. He was simply wanting to learn about the book. If it had been any other book, it would hardly have been newsworthy.

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

I have recently been introduced to the concept of the iconic book. A colleague of mine kindly shared the idea during a campus visit. He and I happen to share advanced training in reading the same book, but, as he pointed out, it is the book and not its contents that our society recognizes. This is what makes it an iconic book. When we go to court we are asked to place our hands upon it and swear—something the book itself would doubtlessly consider some form of idolatry. We use it for inaugurating the highest officials in our land. We see it laid out in public places and private homes. We consider harming or disrespecting it to be an act of sacrilege. To us, it is more than paper, ink, leather and glue.

The dedication of Phillip Patterson ought to be celebrated. As he noted, to learn more about a book, you have to be willing to dig deeply. Look at every single word. Not that such treatment is fashionable. In a society enamored of power, we prefer the power of the iconic book over its often troubling content. It is certainly much easier trumpeting it than reading it. As I listen to the debates about public policy, the endless attempts to legislate morality, I ponder how little people actually read Mr. Patterson’s book. That’s what makes his accomplishment so remarkable. In producing an iconic book, a book that I don’t need to name because anyone might figure out what it is, our protagonist actually read it. In this age of technology, that is an accomplishment to be celebrated indeed.

Confessions of a Luddite

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. I learned my computer skills on a Mac, and I have been an adoring follower of Apple ever since. Every time I see Windows at work, I sneer at how they try to emulate the real thing: the Mac operating environment. Only clunkier. It is like watching hand-drawn cartoons in high-definition. Regular readers of this blog expect a daily post, but my valiant laptop, alas, had what is akin to a religious experience and I’m losing it. I’ve done my blog posts from that laptop for nearly two years. I sometimes work on them during the long commute to New York City. When my Mac Book encountered the plethora of signals from a Manhattan office building, it froze up. At home it no longer recognizes my base-station router. With my limited technical knowledge I’ve tried every trick on the Internet that doesn’t involve some Geek God going off into jargon that a humble reader of ancient languages can’t understand. I am grieving.

Yesterday, thinking about my plight, I saw the parallels with religious experience. My laptop in my eighth-floor office is like Moses climbing Mount Sinai, but less robust than the 80-year-old prophet. Having encountered a higher being—signals from the heavens, hundreds of them—it has bowed in acquiescence. It has received an epiphany that I missed while going about my daily editing duties. When it returned home, it was not able to recognize the one signal that has been its lord and master since it was first booted up. Nothing from restarting the router to reinstalling the entire factory-set system to clearing and restricting the access to the one true network has helped. My computer, to borrow a phrase from Atwood, has gone into a fallow state. That is a kind way of saying it is a mere paperweight or doorstop.

According to the standard interpretation, that is similar to an encounter with the divine. It leaves you marked, transformed. Sometimes incapacitated. Or perhaps the correct analogy is that of idolatry. My computer has gone on after foreign gods and no longer recognizes the one who gave it birth. I have suffered through two sleepless nights because of it. I even visited the local Apple store where they suggest I clear the AirPort history. Like I know what that means. Perhaps I have the analogy all wrong. Maybe my computer is the deity and I am the acolyte. It is mysterious and powerful and I am left in tears after an encounter with it. But really, it feels like a friend has died. I haven’t been able to post my quirky observations. I have to borrow a friend’s computer. Am I a prophet or just another Luddite awaiting my own theophany?

Worshipping Religion

When does religion itself cross that invisible line into becoming the object of idolatry? In a world of an entire marketplace (“bazaar” might be a better word-choice) of religions, where each consumer selects his or her product, some take that choice with such conviction that the religion itself becomes their god. In ancient times religion was often a matter of ensuring that the gods were not angry. The average citizen had little control over this since the religious life of city-states and nations was the responsibility of the priesthood. Just pay your temple taxes and shut up. A religion anyone can live with. Last night as we discussed Jeremiah’s temple sermon in class the point became clear: even the God-chosen, fully approved temple in Jerusalem could become an idol.

Watching political candidates and parties and factions of parties posturing (apart from reminding one of peacocks and other showy birds) for possible election, they fly high the flags of their faith and hope that the market favors their brand. It is clear among many of their constituencies that the religions themselves have become objects of worship. How else can the rancor among a deeply divided Christianity (as only one example) be explained? Families and friends are torn apart by a common faith while ministers with the dubious benefit of seminary egg them on. Having been subjected to seminary as both student and instructor, I tremble when I think how clergy are trained. A holy nationalism pervades religions, transforming the faithful into armies that some, unfortunately, end up taking literally.

All the endless debates about religious violence and evolution and abortion should have taught us by now: no one has God in the witness stand. Our religions are our best guesses, no more, no less. In the face of great uncertainty many turn to the bravado of a faith that is willing to murder in order to prove its point. If God is really watching all this, perhaps a humble acceptance might be more appropriate? I think old Jeremiah might have agreed. Of course, he likely died at the hands of his own people who didn’t like his version of religion. That’s where the prophets have gone.