If Terry Jones won't burn the Koran, would you?
Admittedly, it's hard to figure out what Jones, the mercurial leader of a small, cult-like Florida church, will do next. First he was committed to burning Korans on 9/11 to show Muslims what he thinks of them and their holy book. Then, after a global outcry and condemnation, Jones said God sent a sign that he shouldn't because the backers of an Islamic center planned near ground zero promised they'd move it. Then when that deal turned out to be fiction, Jones said he was reconsidering his position and only "suspending" the book burning.
But cut through all the posturing and flip-flopping for a moment and get back to the heart of the matter raised by Jones' "stunt," to use President Obama's apt word: Would you burn the Koran?
Most would quickly and loudly say no, among them some of the more conservative and Bible-believing commentators around, including writer Peter Wehner. "The Third Reich burned books; those who are citizens of the United States should not," Wehner wrote in a blog post
at Commentary magazine. "Jones's actions would also be an offense against the Christian faith."
But there is something about that immediate instinct to tolerance -- or, if you will, that reflexive political correctness -- coming from orthodox believers, in particular, that irked Joe Carter, web editor of the conservative religious and political journal, First Things.
That is why Carter -- an evangelical who worked on Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign -- proposed a thought experiment to test just how tolerant, or how genuinely religious, you are.
If you could, Carter wondered in a recent web column
, would you delete the Koran entirely? Erase Islam from world history?
Carter grounded his hypothesis in the observation that worshiping false gods is the worst sin for the God of the Old Testament; indeed, the first two of the Ten Commandments deal with that transgression.
So Carter says that while he is against book-burning in general, and thinks God agrees with him, he regrets that American Christians -- even good conservatives -- are acting like mushy liberal Protestants by wringing their hands over Jones' Koran-burning threats. Worse, they are ascribing the same genteel tolerance to Yahweh, who wasn't known -- at least in the Old Testament -- as a sherry-sipping WASP.
Carter instead proposes a "thought experiment" to get around our enlightened views against book burning and see whether we would take seriously the injunction against "false religion":
"Imagine that you (a devout Christian, Jew, Mormon, Hindu, etc) are shown a button and are told that if you press it, all knowledge of the Koran will cease to exist," Carter writes. "Every text version across the globe will instantly disappear and any passages that were memorized will be forgotten. Muslims will not otherwise be affected other than their having no recall of the words of Allah as collected by Moham[m]ed."
"Would you press the button? How would you justify your decision? Would your decision be different if you had to make it solely based on the teaching of your faith and not on received cultural assumptions?"
The advantages of Carter's proposal are obvious.
Erasing any recollection of the Koran, and in effect erasing Islam, would leave no trail of evidence for aggrieved Muslims to follow to the source. There would be responsibility but no accountability -- no danger of having one's life ruined (or enhanced, if you like 15 minutes of fame) by a three-ring media circus or an angry mob. (Indeed, Carter's delete-key proposal is so polite and seemingly innocuous that it sounds like a book burning a Unitarian would invent.)
Moreover, book burning is not only an attack on the ideas and tenets in a book but an assault on the people who write or embrace the beliefs in those books. (Terry Jones admits he's never read the Koran, and doesn't need to.)
"Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people," the German writer Heinrich Heine wrote in an 1821 play, "Almansor," referring to -- yes -- burning the Koran during the Spanish Inquisition. More than a century later the Nazis burned Heine's books, along with millions of people.
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Whether book burning works depends on one's goals. For many, book burning is like a rancher hanging a dead coyote on the fence to warn others what awaits if they don't stay away.
Actually eliminating an idea or dogma by destroying its text has always been harder to do, never moreso than today.
Given the viral nature of digital media, everyone recognizes that no one can eliminate any text permanently. So modern book burning is recognized as futile in terms of eliminating the offensive material.
Rather, it is more like a form of desecration or iconoclasm -- like the militant atheist PZ Myers driving a rusty nail
through a communion wafer or the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Bamyan
. Such actions do little to stop people from believing in something, and may actually encourage them to rally behind the disputed religious view. But desecrations make the iconoclasts feel better about themselves, and let people know where they stand.
In fact, deleting texts from the historical consciousness was a practice frequently deployed by authorities within a religious tradition as a way to enforce orthodoxy by preventing unauthorized texts from proliferating and leading the faithful astray.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, for example, his followers finally settled on an authoritative version of the Koran -- and they ordered that all other versions be burned.
A few centuries earlier, as the first Christians were figuring out which books of the Bible would be considered part of the canon, alternative versions of the story of Jesus, which came to be known as the Gnostic Gospels, were cast aside or destroyed.
Unfortunately for the authorities -- and luckily for historians -- even in ancient times, when vellum and papyrus were rarities, some copies survived.
In 1948, for instance, an Egyptian peasant digging for fertilizer near the town of Nag Hammadi in the Upper Nile discovered a trove of codexes of the Gnostic Gospels
-- late versions of the life of Jesus containing esoteric teachings so thrilling to Westerners that they have become more popular than the canonical gospels for millions of readers.
Similarly, the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
-- early versions of the Hebrew bible and other documents -- sparked heated debates over the development of scripture that continue to this day.
But Carter's thought experiment would avoid such perils because it foresees eliminating every copy and every memory of the Koran, and bloodlessly.
The most obvious problem with this idea is that it evokes a Stalinist totalitarianism of the kind portrayed in George Orwell's "1984," with its depiction of the notorious "memory hole" where unauthorized texts and books were dumped.
Also, heresy (or heterodoxy, an alternate belief) has historically been as essential to religion as orthodoxy. Without other religious traditions or the occasional heretic, orthodoxy would be adrift in its own reflecting pool, with nothing to bump up against and no way for believers to take precise soundings on the truth.
In addition, eliminating all competing theologies and philosophies would threaten to eliminate free will, which is key to a genuine profession of faith, notably in Christianity. Without choices, there is no free will. Adam and Eve had options. O felix culpa!
That is what made them, and us, human, and blessedly imperfect.
Even parents who annually lobby to bar certain books from local libraries for fear that they will corrupt their youth -- the Harry Potter novels are perennial favorites -- probably don't think they will protect their children from these texts forever, and they don't (usually) advocate tossing the books on a bonfire. They are instead trying to shield their offspring until they are old enough to make mature decisions about their beliefs -- choices that moms and dads hope and pray will be the decisions they themselves made. But maybe not.
Completely erasing other religious traditions and texts is also never going to eliminate religious creativity from the human mind.
Islam holds that there are 99 names for God, and if they were deleted the yearning souls of humanity would come up with plenty more, and many more ways to try to worship and understand the ineffable mystery of God. Just look at the infinite variety of religious traditions that have flourished throughout the ages; hitting the "delete" on them all would lead to a serious repetitive stress injury.
Finally, whatever the God of the Old Testament thought about false religions, His latter-day disciples have found much truth to praise in other religious traditions. Even Roman Catholicism, hardly an outpost of liberal Protestantism, has for decades taught that the "seeds of truth" are to be found in other faiths.
Pope Benedict XVI has said he considers the Koran the sacred text "of a great religion," and the late Pope John Paul II told Muslim young people who follow Allah that "We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God Who created the world and brings His creatures to their perfection."
In the end, burning books or desecrating icons or even imagining the possibility of hitting a "delete" key to eliminate a religion or its holy writ only lends to those texts and traditions the kind of authenticity that the book burner hopes to undermine.
Book burning is self-defeating, if only because it makes the false religion that Yahweh warned about in the Ten Commandments seem more like the real deal.