To prove a religious point, Moses turned his staff into a serpent before Pharaoh. On another occasion he drew water from a rock when he struck it. To the same end, Muhammad had a winged steed that flew him to the furthest mosque, to heaven and hell, and then back to earth. Then there is Jonah and the big fish, and Jesus and the fig tree; both signs to make a point. More contemporary (and less supernatural) signs include the work of Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary who began a campaign to send Bibles to Glenn Beck, and Terry Jones, pastor of the Gainesville, Florida church that threatened to burn copies of the Quran on September 11, they have the holy books themselves.
What’s the point of these signs, mythical or otherwise? Done well, grand demonstrations primarily help to affirm the faith of believers and are meant to convince non-believers to believe. It’s not the motive that’s important, but the sign itself.
The effect works in scripture, where we can read of many signs as divinely inspired stories, with the help of scholarly aids. But in the modern day, demonstrations to prove a religious point are tangled in cultural interpretations and misinterpretations, and often have unintended consequences for both believers and non-believers. And when the sign to affirm faith uses a holy book as a symbolic instrument, the point becomes even more muddled.
Take for example the Bible beating. Often figurative but sometimes literal, it’s not uncommon for Christians to talk about beating someone over the head with holy writ to prove a hermeneutical point. I’ve witnessed a literal, physical Bible-beating. Though it was surreal and very funny, it wasn’t a joke for either the angry beater or the person ducking and running from repeated blows to his noggin. Whatever the point, the action certainly wasn’t biblical.
Symbolically, Serene Jones gave Glenn Beck a good Bible beating. I respect her call to action: mass-mailing Bibles with social justice verses highlighted is creative, responsive, and physically non-violent – all tactics exemplified by biblical prophets. Social justice Christians rallied with her. Many mailed Bibles themselves. I’d consider the action a success: the faith of social justice Christians has been affirmed, and time will tell if Glenn Beck changes his tune.
What went wrong with Terry Jones’ attempt at a sign to prove a religious point, his threatened demonstration – besides being hateful and offensive – is that Quran-burning would affirm the faith of only a few similarly minded Christian fundamentalists. But for most Christians, we are left with limited choices: to defend ourselves and our faith, or to distance ourselves from continued hateful acts committed in the name of Christianity, as Anne Rice did publicly earlier this year. And what non-believer would choose to convert because of a bonfire of holy books?
Instead, Pastor Jones’ threat seems to have backfired. Not only are there reports of Christian churches being burned, but many have responded by participating in International Read a Quran Day. Several of my friends and acquaintances are reading English translations of the Quran. The elementary and middle school age children at my Quaker meeting are studying Islam for the next two months. Many of the children go to school with Muslim classmates or have Muslim neighbors, and they want to understand Islamic customs, fasts, and rituals. As anti-Islamic sentiment has gripped American culture for nearly the past decade, it is action that will show solidarity – literally, physically standing beside Muslim friends and neighbors, kneeling together in interfaith services, opening the scriptures with curiosity and respect. This is the kind of contemporary sign that will truly prove a religious point.
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