Thursday, March 31, 2011

אֱלהִים עֵץ וָאָבֶן / Gods of Wood and Stone…and Paper and Ink

The Bible chides those who construct their gods of wood and stone. In describing the vanity of creating an image, an idol the author of Deutero-Isaiah states the following:
The smith maketh an axe, and worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with his strong arm; yea, he is hungry, and his strength faileth; he drinketh no water, and is faint. The carpenter stretcheth out a line; he marketh it out with a pencil; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compasses, and maketh it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man, to dwell in the house. He heweth him down cedars, and taketh the ilex and the oak, and strengtheneth for himself one among the trees of the forest; he planteth a bay-tree, and the rain doth nourish it. Then a man useth it for fuel; and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself; yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god, and worshippeth it; he maketh it a graven image, and falleth down thereto. He burneth the half thereof in the fire; with the half thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied; yea, he warmeth himself, and saith: 'Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire'; And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image; he falleth down unto it and worshippeth, and prayeth unto it, and saith: 'Deliver me, for thou art my god.' They know not, neither do they understand; for their eyes are bedaubed, that they cannot see, and their hearts, that they cannot understand. And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say: 'I have burned the half of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh and eaten it; and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? Shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?' He striveth after ashes, a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say: 'Is there not a lie in my right hand?' (Isaiah 44:12-20).
Hence, the idol’s maker plants the tree and oversees its maturation only later to draw from the same raw material, the wood, for both fuel as fire wood (a symbol of vanity or transience, Hebrew “chavel”) and a god from which he implores deliverance. The author here illustrates what he thus sees as the irrationality of idol worship: the same raw materials used for fire become the deity receiving worship.
They know not, neither do they understand…He striveth after ashes…[with] a lie in [his] right hand
Though far less concrete, this metaphor can be extrapolated to describe modern-day fundamentalism. The Christian fundamentalist* is characterized by a reliance on a wooden biblical literalism. She believes that she can define, though not necessarily formulate, God by the Bible. The word “definition” is itself a loan-word with etymological roots in Latin through French. Its root word is Latin finitus meaning “limit” or “boundary.” Hence, to define something is to set boundaries, to circumscribe, to set limits. In fact, the 14th century French use of definicion can literally be defined as “a setting of boundaries.” Through the Bible, the Christian fundamentalist feels that she can circumscribe God for what God is and what God isn’t. She constructs her “image” of God from the Bible. Developing this metaphor further, the Christian fundamentalist begins her process of circumscribing or constructing God with paper and ink—the Bible.

Driven by the belief that her reading of the Bible is guided by the Holy Spirit, she extracts her raw materials from the Bible, from the paper and ink with which she encounters the Bible, weakened as it is in translation. Putting aside questions of exegesis and hermeneutics versus devotional encounter, she constructs her image not from wood, but from words encountered on paper and written with ink. Though her resulting definition and image of God is not a concrete idol that is physically enshrined, her construct is nonetheless an image and an idol, a recipient of worship. The fundamentalist Christian is hence left with an image, a construct, a circumscription of her own creation, pieced together through what generally is an uncritical use of the biblical texts, and a recipient of her devotion and worship.

To make this more concrete, construct a mental picture of an idol of wood versus an idol of folded pages torn from the Bible, Bible origami. How is what the fundamentalist Christian does different than what the maker of the wood idol? Are not both likewise shot through with irreparable though humanly-necessary subjectivity? Of course the fundamentalist will argue, “The Bible is God’s self revelation.” Though, really, unless everyone that reads the Bible comes to the same construct of God, this point is utterly meaningless.

*I am referring specifically to fundamentalists of Protestant-Evangelical heritage and the epistemological implications of the doctrine of the priesthood of the [individual] believer

1 comment:

Jamie G. said...

"The Bible chides those who construct their gods of wood and stone."

"Though far less concrete..."

"Though her resulting definition and image of God is not a concrete idol..."

"To make this more concrete, construct a mental picture of an idol of wood versus an idol of folded pages torn from the Bible, Bible origami."

So is concrete idols in or out? I'd like to know since I got a concrete Buddha sitting out in the garden.