Burn after reading except on 9/11? The Koran burning debate
Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., and his 50-member congregation are planning to burn the Koran on Sept. 11. And it's ignited a controversy. I personally wonder how members of the congregation who have made the switch to Kindles are going to participate in the burning -- aggressively hit the delete button?
David Petraeus says the burning will endanger our troops. Hillary Clinton says it's not the American way. Angelina Jolie thinks it's a bad idea, too! Angelina thinks so few things are bad ideas -- she once wore vials of someone's blood around her neck and kissed her brother at the Oscars -- so now we can be absolutely sure.
I know people these days don't like reading books, but this seems like a bit much.
Since when do we respond by burning things that upset us? For millennia, actually. The first fire was probably the result of a caveman being angered by some twigs he considered radical. "I'll show this kindling!" he muttered to himself, clashing his flints together. Early Christians were burned for years, and they didn't enjoy it. There was Joan of Arc. There was Nicholas Cage in "The Wicker Man" -- mostly by critics but also in a large wicker effigy. Then there were the people who insisted that the Harry Potter books were "the devil's text" and conducted small auto da fes.
Books contain volumes -- but they're fragile enough to fall victim to a hateful gesture. It's part of their charm. So burning books has a peculiar weight to it. Books are supposed to be the repository of history and cultural memory, and the ink on their pages will last for generations, even as the pages themselves slowly crumble and fall loose from the bindings. But light a match and -- boom! -- there goes the library of Alexandria.
I'd always hoped book-burning would be one of those things we'd leave behind as we grew taller and more enlightened, with better dental care. It has always struck me as truly medieval, and not in the sense that it is architecturally interesting and people are serving turkey on a spit. It's the sort of behavior that you should have to give up once they install indoor plumbing in your home.
Who does Jones think he is, Savonarola? Savonarola was, succinctly put, an angry friar who ran Renaissance Florence for a few years. He was responsible for the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, in which he committed to the flames everything he believed tended to immorality -- mirrors, books, lewd pictures, works of poets, paintings, sculptures. His message was similar to that of Jones, who says: "Instead of us backing down, maybe it's time to stand up. Maybe it's time to send a message to radical Islam that we will not tolerate their behavior." Both burned things to send a message: What we disapprove of will not be tolerated. Jones admits that Jesus didn't go around burning books -- "But I think he'd burn this one." That's probably what Savonarola thought, too. "Jesus would have hated this Botticelli painting!" he probably shouted as he personally tossed it into the fire, but in Italian. "The perspective's all off!"
Savonarola aside -- they finally got sick of him in Florence and burned him, too -- I think book-burning is always a sign that something has gone awry in your civilization. And Ray Bradbury agrees with me. In his dystopian Fahrenheit 451, "firemen" are hired to burn books as an indication that society has reached the absolute limit. Here's what one character has to say about it:
A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute.…Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator.
But on the other side of the world, Muslims aren't helping their cause. Protest the burnings with more burnings. Great. The only people who are benefiting from this whole shebang are the ones who design and sell effigies of Terry Jones, who probably never expected this level of demand. "Everyone stop setting things on fire and listen to each other!" I scream, but my voice doesn't carry well enough.
It's impossible to boil any religion down to a single sentence, as Jones and others on both sides of the debate have tried to. To say "Christianity is purely a religion of peace" is as great a fallacy as to say "Christianity is founded on hatred." The Bible encompasses both cloud and fire, both turning the other cheek and the arm of the Lord that smiteth, and those who read and believe it have variably decided to use their swords or to beat them into plowshares. Religions are efforts to explain life and reconcile human beings to their position in the universe, and they partake of all the complexity of life, with its potential for misunderstandings, exaggerations, and oversimplifications. Most uncomplicated beliefs turn out to be wrong. For instance, I thought for years that human beings reproduced by means of storks.
Bradbury was right. "Who might be the target of the well-read man?" Books have power. Religious books, buoyed up by the credence of millions, have even more. There's a reason the term "People of the Book," describing Christians and Jews who share the Torah, carries such weight in Islam.
So how about, instead of burning the Koran, we read it? That's what I'm going to do on 9/11. I hope some people will join me. If someone gets the book-on-CD version, maybe he can burn us all a copy.
| September 8, 2010; 3:03 PM ET
Categories: Petri | Tags: Alexandra Petri
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