Christians have a long tradition of book burning, dating back to the first decades of what some call the “Jesus movement.” The Book of Acts in the New Testament records how Christian believers in Ephesus collected books with offensive content (involving “magic” and “spells”) “made a bonfire of them in public.” According to the scripture, “The value of these was calculated to be fifty thousand silver pieces.” This destruction of such literature revealed the power of God (Acts 19:18-19).
But the real wave of book burning started in the fourth century. Then, in the course of one person’s lifetime, Christianity was legalized (by the Edict of Milan in 312), its doctrine standardized by state order at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and under Theodosius I the faith was made virtually compulsory for Roman subjects ca. 390. (Jews were accorded a special exemption.) Believers in Jupiter and the other Greco-Roman gods had a brief reprieve under the rule of Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) who reigned from 355 to 363. But then came the era of violent Christian intolerance. Temples to the pagan gods were shuttered, destroyed or converted to Christian churches. Manichaeism, the faith from Persia popular in some parts of the empire, was harshly suppressed, along with all pagan cults. Eventually Plato’s Academy in Athens was shut down–all in the name of the Christian God.
Scholars dispute the popular story that a Christian mob burned down the great Library in Alexandria, Egypt in 391. But after the Council of Nicaea, Christians publicly burned the works of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who maintained that Jesus was not God but rather a “creation” of God. (A famous ninth century Italian picture shows Emperor Constantine blessing the incineration.) You weren’t allowed to publish that opinion at that time.
In 364 the Christian emperor Jovian ordered the burning of the great library of Antioch, in the third largest city in the empire. It had been richly patronized by his predecessor Julian. Many if not most Christians–there were deep divisions among them–regarded the destruction of “heretical” or pagan material as eminently justified. (Why not burn what you know–via your religious faith–is false?)
Whenever you read that a text by Sophocles, or Aristophanes, or some other ancient author, or perhaps one of the many “gospels” composed by “heretical” Christians is “lost” (known only by title and some extracts in another test), think: Christian book burning. We know that there were many forms of early Christian belief because second and third century “heresiologists” like Irenaeus and Hippolytus summarized their views, selectively and tendentiously quoting texts in order to explain why they were ridiculous or wrong.
(Examples include the well-known Gospel of Thomas and the recently rediscovered Gospel of Judas.) They lived before the church was merged with the state. They were concerned with merely refuting and discrediting the texts they disliked, since they weren’t in a strong position to destroy them. But from the fourth century, as the bishops acquired political power, the offending texts were systematically torched.
There are innumerable medieval examples of Christian book burning; the philosopher Peter Abelard was forced by a synod council to burn his own book (offering a rationalistic explanation of the doctrine of the trinity) in 1121. In France the works of the heretical Cathars were burned in the thirteenth century, along with the works of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Talmud. During the Reformation, works of opposing Christian movements burned one another’s’ books with glee, including Bibles translated into vernacular languages, without some church’s official permission.
Even during the Enlightenment the “Imperial Book Commission” of the Holy Roman Empire could order the burning of the writings of the German Deist, Johann Christian Edelmann. Frankfurt’s entire municipal government as well as a large crowd turned out to watch a thousand copies of his works set to the torch in 1750. (Edelmann had dared to declare that Jesus was a man, not a god.)
Thus if violence is, as H. Rap Brown once declared, “as American as cherry pie,” book burning is as Christian as the bread and wine of the Eucharist. There are modern Christians who uphold this long tradition. The Amazing Grace Baptist Church of Canton, North Carolina, planned a book burning on Halloween 2009. The pastor wanted to incinerate modern English translations of the Bible, since his church believes only the King James Version (of 1611) is God’s Word and all the other versions are “heretical.” The plan was stymied by torrential rain but the righteous ones did indeed trash the offending Bibles.
Those particular burners have the ”faith-based” conviction that somehow God in his wisdom called upon these translators in the early 17th century, with their limited knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, to render scripture definitively into English for all time. And that any subsequent translations must be the devil’s work. The inability of such people to understand that developments in such fields as archeology and linguistics are constantly producing better translations of texts never ceases to amaze me. What do they think are the “true” French, German, Spanish or Chinese versions of what they think is “God’s word”? Do they believe that the Creator of the universe first spoke through prophets in Hebrew and Greek, then decisively through the holy language of English, in a translation by 47 English linguists assembled by Hampton Court by the Anglican son of Mary Stuart, the Roman Catholic “Queen of Scots” as of 1611?
A hilarious parody of these believing types can be found here.
The (fictitious) “Landover Baptist Church” declares: “Unlike the sissy ‘Jesus is Love’ fake-Christians (whom both the Lord Jesus and we loathe) we have running around today, the early followers of Christ were never ashamed to burn books. In fact, if you ever find yourself being grateful for the destruction of most of the works of pagan nincompoops like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, you have a Christian to thank!”
It’s satire. But (just like Tina Fey’s parodies of Sarah Palin actually reflect Palin’s views) the satire reflects the genuine beliefs of some U.S. Christians. (Recall that Palin once tried to get the Wasilla City Librarian to remove certain books, but when called to account as a political candidate later told the press, ”Sweet Lord, no! I would never ask the librarian to burn books!”)
There are many fundamentalist Christians who fear to allow their children to attend public school precisely because they fear philosophical discussion, openness, dialectic, nuance, Socratic doubt. And many see college professors, in general, as nefarious if not demonic.
The widely publicized plans of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, to burn Qur’ans on Sept. 11 thus continues a long tradition of ignorance and intolerance. This intolerance is not normative in modern Christianity in the U.S.; ecumenism has long been the more mainstream tradition. But when you have someone of the stature of the Rev. Franklin Graham opining that Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion,” does he not encourage the book burners?
It needs to be said: since the seventh century, the Islamic world has been generally more tolerant towards books than the Christian world. There have been some egregious departures from tolerance; the destruction of the library in the Nalanda (Buddhist) monastery in northern India by a Muslim army from Central Asia in the 12th century, for example. (Reports of the sacking of the Library of Alexandria by an Arab army in 642 are generally now discounted.)
But rather than burning the books of Jews and Christians, Muslims recognized these communities precisely because they were “Peoples of the Book” entitled to their texts! In South Asia they tended to also recognize Hindus and Buddhists as “Peoples of the Book” with their own sutras and sophisticated ideas derived from them. While Christians were burning books (to eradicate what they thought were evil influences and establish their own monopoly on thought), Muslims were preserving books and contemplating varied interpretations of reality. Muslims have never had a formulaic creed (like the Nicene creed) establishing doctrine, or a papacy to enforce belief. The Qur’an states “There should be no coercion in religion” (surah 2: 256). And while there are contradictory passages in the Qur’an (an historical text written by human beings over a certain amount of time) this message of tolerance has generally prevailed over the last thousand three hundred years.
The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 764-809), a contemporary of Charlemagne (whom he sent an elephant as a present) presided over a diverse court that included Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and probably Buddhists and Brahmins. Born in Tehran, Persia, he enjoyed presiding over debates between thinkers of different religions. (Charlemagne tolerated the Jews in his empire and began the “Carolingian Renaissance.” But he was probably less religiously tolerant than al-Rashid who sought his friendship.)
The first Abbasid caliphs founded the “House of Wisdom” library in Baghdad, which also served as a center for the translation of ancient Greek texts into Syriac or Arabic throughout the eighth and ninth centuries. Christians and Jews under Muslim rule played important roles in preserving these books. Some had been burned and lost in Christendom but were only re-introduced due to the fact that Muslims conquered the Iberian peninsula and established centers of intercultural dialogue in places like Cordoba. (Yes, that’s Cordoba, as in the New York City Islamic center, Cordoba House, that bigoted fools demanded change its name so as not to “offend” “Americans”…)
Everyone who’s received a decent primary education should realize it was interaction between Christians and Muslims in Muslim Spain that allowed for the revival of much classical learning lost to Christendom during the Dark Ages. It’s from Cordoba that we acquired algebra (which by the way, is a word derived from Arabic).
In some countries it’s against the law to deny the Holocaust (or its extent or nature). It’s considered a hate crime. What about burning a book which is the heart and soul of a community, denouncing it as the work of the devil? (Yes I know the Florida pastor plans to torch the Talmud too, just like his medieval forebears, making it plain to his flock and the world that he doesn’t just hate Muslims. But it seems an afterthought, a way of saying “I’m not just hostile to Muslims but to Jews too.”)
What about setting fuel and match to a text handled reverentially as a matter of course by a fifth of the world? Isn’t that even more provocative than challenging any historical record? Whether or not it’s a hate crime according to somebody’s legal definition, it’s a moral crime that Christians and all of us should deplore. Book burning’s part of an historical pattern, but Christians can question and renounce that heritage.
The world itself is burning. People are blowing themselves up in Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan. People are being fried by missile strikes on wedding parties in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stinger and Griffin missiles burn bad . Everywhere the U.S. flag is getting torched precisely because of the crazy behavior and political influence of some U.S. Christians desperate to see the Apocalypse, after which they imagine the Beast and False Prophet will be thrown into a lake of fire (“to burn forever,” Rev 20:15). The latter (even those burning the Talmud) are eager to cheer on Zionist Jews including those with the most grotesque racist, Islamophobic inclinations, ‘I’m on God’s side,” they think, holding his His holy fire in their hands—stupid kids playing with fireworks.
After the rally in Kabul on Tuesday by Afghans denouncing not just the Florida church but Obama and the whole U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus in urged the Rev. Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach to step back. The general knows he can’t change the people’s religion. He’s just charged with the task of bringing Afghanistan under the control of the U.S. military-industrial complex, and as a rational man sees a contradiction between the overall objectives of U.S. imperialism and the objectives of the Islamophobes in the U.S. fired up by cable news airheads. But the U.S. ruling elite–have despite all the talk about tolerance–deployed tools of bigotry from square one. (Think of Bush’s reference to a “Crusade” after 9-11.)
Malcolm X (a U.S. Muslim of significance) once said, “The chickens are coming home to roost.” After quoting that, right after 9-11, a very decent U.S. academic got ferociously attacked in a sort of book burning frenzy. But now even the top brass is alarmed at those chickens coming home to roost. It’s not like they really care about burning books in principle; they shred documents detailing their crimes, they attack WikiLeaks and demand it remove documents from the web.
But they suddenly care about anti-Muslim book burning “blowback” impeding their efforts in Southwest Asia. That blowback is their bad karma. And the inevitable decline of an immorally constituted empire is (in my humble opinion) fine. The main issue is the welfare of humanity. During the Spanish Inquisition, the Qur’an was burned in Spain. The German writer Heinrich Heine in his 1821 play Almanso, observed, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen. (“Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.”)
If the crazies in Gainesville do their thing this Saturday they will burn more than books. They will perhaps draw down fire on all of us, contented that whatever happens is part of what they think is their god’s plan. Those among us, religious or irreligious, believers or atheists, with a sense of compassion for humanity and capacity for reason ought to protest such provocative actions.
There are plans for a rally this September 11 to defend the right of New York City Muslims to build a mosque or Islamic center—wherever they want, wherever is legal and approved by local authorities. On that day, as the idiots do their ugly thing in Florida, I hope there’s a good turnout in New York (especially of non-Muslims) to oppose bigotry.