I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Religion Gone Wild: The Stained Glass Windows

Thus the wild-fire of idolatry now flies furiously through all the tribe of Dan, who, like the thieves that have carried away plaguy clothes, have insensibly infected themselves and their posterity to death. Heresy and superstition have small beginnings, dangerous proceedings, pernicious conclusions.

            -Joseph Hall, Contemplations

Idolatry means making or owning an idol for religious purposes, or worshipping it, whether it be a representation of the true God or of some false god. ... the worship of the true God in the form of an idol is accounted no less grave a sin than the worship of devils.

            -John Milton, Christian Doctrine

Religious superstition is not dead.

            -Thomas E. Miller, Portraits

While sitting in my "Religion and Violence" class I heard a Christian minister tell a story, and though my memory is neither photographic nor eidetic, I have made an attempt to recount the story here:
I was preaching about the woman who was accused of adultery by a crowd (John 8:2-11), and at the end of the sermon I handed everyone in the chapel a stone and said they could throw them at me if they wished. A woman spoke up and exclaimed that, after hearing this sermon, they could not possibly throw stones at me. The congregation couldn't have stoned me in the first place. Of course, I stood in front of the stained glass windows just in case.
The last sentence was uttered in jest, the suggesting being that breaking a church's stained glass windows with a stone is more evil to a Christian than assaulting or killing another human being. Though it was intended as a joke, I felt kind of scared of the joke's implications. I know that historically, and if we're being honest, presently, there are Christians who value objects, depictions and buildings more than they value human life. I believe that a joke like this would never even be told if there weren't enough people in the world who understand the impetus behind it in her audience, and the fact that this many people understand what it is like to value objects over living human beings is the reason for my fright.

When I was in elementary school a girl once brought an odd-looking book into class. A group of people gathered around her and began gawking at the foreign characters. It looked like the sort of strange script one might find in a book of sorcery in a film, perhaps even The Necronomicon. I remember approaching this girl and saying, "What's the big deal? It's just some stupid book." The little girl's face became grave and her eyes met mine and she replied, "This is the Bible." I felt sick, like the bottom of the world had disappeared from beneath me. The sound of children saying "Ooooooh" became a din, rising and rising in volume and intensity like the score of a Kubrick film.

This scene took place at a public elementary school, and yet everyone was convinced that my act of calling the Bible stupid, even accidentally, was not only something that would get me in trouble with our teacher, but something that would invoke the wrath of God. If children had more than a thirty second attention span they might remember me to this day as a heretic for what I said that day. It was commonplace for kids to tear down other kids with words, pranks and violence - I remember girls saying "Iew" whenever I'd pass by and boys kicking me and calling me names simply because I was fat - but it was forbidden to say anything negative about the book.

It is not difficult for me to think of ways in which religious objects are treated with deference. People wear crosses and stars of David around their necks. There are some religious traditions whose Bibles are gilded with gold, incredibly ornate. It is not uncommon for people to kiss such a Bible to show respect. Most pilgrimages revolve around the idea that certain places are either more holy in and of themselves or more holy because they contain powerful religious relics, possibly even the body parts of saints and heroes. While one may think first and foremost of Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca, Jewish pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and the mass pilgrimages that Christian devotees have taken in centuries past, this trend is certainly not limited to "the people of the Book." Buddhists have, for some time, travelled and given respect at mounds called stupas which are said to contain remains of the Buddha and other relics.

Even Micah, the protagonist of Judges 17 and 18, holds a great deal of deference for religious objects: "This man Micah had a shrine, and he made an ephod and teraphim, and installed one of his sons, who became his priest" (Judg 17:5 NRSV). The New Oxford Annotated Bible describes a teraphim as "some type of household deities used for divination purposes," and though an ephod is usually understood as "an elaborate priestly vestment," in conjunction with the teraphim it is more likely to refer to "some sort of idol" (382). In Judges, David M. Gunn writes that ancient historian Pseudo-Philo identifies this teraphim as images of boys, calves, a lion, an eagle, and a dragon, "each appropriate for relaying the diving response to a particular type of request" (233). When I think of this passage I no longer think of silver statuettes. After the story I heard in my "Religion and Violence" class, I see these animals painted on glass, growing in beauty as the light shines in on a congregation. But now they have transformed into Biblical heroes, Noah courageously saving humankind from a great flood, father Abraham, Jacob who would be known as Israel, Moses the deliverer, Jesus the savior (probably in at least more than one scene), etc. Perhaps we can even throw in Constantine, Augustine and Aquinas, later heroes of the faith.

The following verse, Judges 17:6, casts the biblical figure of Micah in a different light: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (NRSV). This is commonly interpreted as a criticism of Micah's actions in constructing these images. It has been argued that one of the most significant themes in the entire book of Judges is that of idolatry. But can we view the importance of Bibles, crosses, and stained glass depictions of biblical stories as idolatrous in the same light as silver, gold and wooden statues of foreign or household gods? A traditional Catholic answer is that there is a distinction "between an idol, the likeness of something false, and a religious image, the likeness of something real" (Gunn, 234), but this is certainly not the end of the discussion. Many Protestant theologians have, with varying degrees of vehemence, proclaimed that likenesses, whether of "some fake god" or of "the true God," are all under the criticism of Torah commands against graven images.

Wherever you fall on this distinction, there is a discussion to be had which is less concerned with the proper application of doctrine and more concerned with the value of human life. Not to pick on the Catholics too much - I believe that nearly every religion or denomination has some sort of violence or violation in their pockets that can be revealed with enough shaking - but the extent of violence perpetrated during the Crusades alone justifies a critique of Christian attitude toward the value of objects and human lives. In Shusaku Endo's challenging novel Silence, protagonist SebastiĆ£o Rodrigues (based on real-life Jesuit Giuseppe Chiara) is forced to trample a fumi-e, the Japanese word for a carved likeness of Jesus Christ, in symbolic renunciation of Christianity. If Rodrigues refuses, thousands of Japanese Christians will be tortured and killed. Silent throughout Rodrigues's persecution, Christ finally speaks to Rodrigues in this time of important decisions, saying, "Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here" (176). Endo's Christ denies power to the superficial act of trampling a carving and verbal renunciation, suggesting both that the human lives at stake far outweigh the fate of the fumi-e and that true faith cannot by limited by its superficial expression.

I read Endo's Silence for a course called "History of Christianity in East Asia," and while discussing this book there was a student who felt betrayed by Rodrigues. "Why couldn't he just remain faithful? Why did he have to trample the fumi-e?" she asked. This course was taught at a seminary which gave me good reason to believe that this student was not just a Christian but a future leader of the Christian community. I consider this Christianity gone wild. In the story of the woman accused of adultery, Jesus responds, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7 NRSV). In response to the congregation who is ready to stone an adulteress in a modern-day church, there is a part of me that believes a minister would respond, "Don't you dare throw a stone in the sanctuary. If you're going to stone her to death make sure you drag her out back. Oh, and stay away from the prayer garden. Brother Judd put a lot of good money into the prayer garden and we don't want it to go to waste."

Let's hope that part of me is wrong.

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