When Texts Become Idols

Language is a gift, not a god.
Trump supporters during the riot at the U.S. Capitol, January 6, 2021 (SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

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The Founding Fathers’ group portraits, most of them commemorating great moments in the early life of the nation, blazon the American “civic religion.” The solemn stares, the excellent posture, the iconic stillness of the bodies in the deliberative shrine project the ultimate anti-drama—a place where, like heaven in the Talking Heads song, nothing ever happens. But, of course, there’s no heaven on earth. Historians stress the artists’ retrospective abstraction: in reality, so-and-so was not even there, while these two other men loathed each other and were seething after a painful compromise, not posing in peaceful unity. And to judge from some of the actual decisions of the era, and from some of their consequences—most glaringly, the Civil War—Greek tragedy would have been a more appropriate inspiration for the paintings than that neoclassical cliché, the sublime calm of Greek and Roman statuary.

This tension between the idealized image and the ugliness of history has been on my mind during this scarifying winter, and I wonder whether the two cannot work on each other, to evil ends. I am a translator and literary scholar, so I turn toward texts to find my bearings. Texts are one of the many kinds of objects that political conflict can elevate into a realm where they do not belong and where they serve to sanctify hatred and greed. Scrutiny of such a process goes against my grain; cheerleading for the power of texts has been my business for forty years. But, alas, it’s time. Even Americans who didn’t contribute directly to this mess should be asking how their national culture did. And in the realm of texts, the evidence is not reassuring.

In one video clip, an insurrectionist is moving toward the Capitol, a reporter following along and asking him why he’s doing this. The Constitution, he answers. The reporter persists: Has this man read the Constitution? The rioter is momentarily stumped. He’s read...parts of it, he says. The reporter presses, saying that he himself has read the whole thing and that it’s a short document, but his interlocutor has lost patience with the exchange. To him, there’s no point in discussing this document—in pouring measured layers of words onto the original words—because to him it’s not really a document, much less a foundation of law and governance. It’s a sump for his lower urges, but a sump now lifted into quasi-divine status and leaking poisonous fluids from the skies. Some legal scholars like to talk about the “living Constitution,” emphasizing its adaptive development over the centuries. To the alt-right, it lives in order to give them power and pleasure; hence their lack of interest in what it actually is, and their fixation on what it can do for them. In other words, it is an idol.

It would be a mistake, however, and a route toward smug divisiveness, not to see this attitude in very long perspective, and not to acknowledge how much all of us participate in it—especially those of us who cherish the written word. It is understandable how we fell into this trap. Since its invention, writing has seemed magical, and, in the public sphere, a sort of savior. Once trade became documentary, long-term transactions became far more reliable; they didn’t depend on self-interested memory and which party was able and willing to beat the tar out of the other to get the result he wanted. The truth was on a tablet stored and guarded in a temple—the clay tablets of Mesopotamia are associated with the beginning of writing. Once laws became documented, ordinary citizens did not have to accept the elite’s on-the-spot, verbal reports about sanctioned rights and duties; a summary of these might even be inscribed permanently on government edifices. The Twelve Tables in ancient Rome were one instance: “If someone is summoned to court,” they begin, “he must go.” If he cannot walk, he is entitled to a cart but not cushions. The written word lasted, guiding and vindicating you when nothing else could.

“Sacred literature” is something of a misnomer when applied to the ancient world; all writing had a certain aura of prestige and wonder. This aura was immeasurably heightened in the Jewish scriptures, the earliest Bible, which didn’t just regulate a polity; it practically created one out of the ashes of the Babylonian conquest near the start of the sixth century B.C. The Bible became the difference between memory and oblivion, meaning and meaninglessness, existence and annihilation amid the routine conflagrations and genocides-by-enslavement in a strategic corridor of the ancient Near East. The Christian Bible retains this status of being not just there at the creation of something momentous, but active in that creation as a primal and immortal embodiment of God’s will. The first chapter of John’s Gospel even asserts that the “Word” (logos, originally meaning a financial account, suggests a verifiable record) existed before the universe did.

“Sacred literature” is something of a misnomer when applied to the ancient world; all writing had a certain aura of prestige and wonder.

The Reformation intensified this awe, and channeled it in a super-concentrated form into the American political experiment. It was not just that early Protestants meant what they said by sola scriptura (“by scripture alone”: the transcendent Bible was to be the sole authority for faith and practice, thus purifying Christianity from veneration of objects and obedience to mere human decrees); the Bible’s text and the physical Bible quickly became substitute objects of veneration, drawing to themselves some of the same superstitious feeling that reform was supposed to do away with. The iconoclastic stripping and destruction of church art, which in the Netherlands began with a long series of riots, were justified by the first of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) and similar Bible verses. But the innumerable textual acts motivating and celebrating these episodes—sermons and lessons and recitations and even children’s chants and games—showed that the Bible itself could easily be fetishized and turned into a flag of power. A late offshoot of this tendency was Justice Roy Moore’s two-and-a-half-ton piece of granite with the Ten Commandments carved on it, which he commissioned and sneaked into a rotunda of an Alabama courtroom at night. After higher courts forced its removal, he had it hauled around the country in a special truck so that like-minded Americans could venerate it.

I have met with a similar idolatry of the Bible in modern-day South Africa. In fact, the South African example derives from the same era in which the Puritan settlement of North America began, and from roughly the same strain of Calvinism that the Puritans professed. Both the Dutch Boers (“Farmers”) and the Puritans migrated to seek a homeland for a stricter and more independent religion than their native countries would allow, and both took with them their precious vernacular Bibles to uphold devotions and identity in their homes. British soldiers often took these Bibles as souvenirs during the Boer War of 1899–1902. After a long hiatus in the Quaker project of restoring the looted books to their original families in South Africa, I was tasked with finding the rightful heirs of one Bible that remained unclaimed in a South African library. (I failed.)

From photos of this Bible and others, I could tell what had tempted the tommies. These weren’t so much books as treasure chests: large, bound in thick leather, sometimes fitted with sturdy straps, studs, or ornate metal clasps or protectors of the edges or corners. Hundreds of years of family records were enshrined in the front, making the volumes talismans of continuity. Again, these objects were about far more than the text as such; the priority given to the bindings speaks of security in a hostile world. (Southern Africa turned out to be much more hostile than the Netherlands, because the Boers invaded the former and pushed out or enslaved the indigenous people, who nevertheless continued to outnumber them.) It’s conceivable that in less punctilious households a Bible was seldom opened. It was there to show that, like its owners, it could survive.

The American experience suggests that the veneration of the Bible as a mere object is relatively harmless. In the natural course of things, an object lets people down, reveals what it really is, and loses the ascription of magic powers, even if it keeps a role in ritual. In the movie Groundhog Day, one stage of Phil Connors’s growth is signaled by his broadcast commentary on the big event: “This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat.” The statement remains true at bottom—the rite of groundhog prognostication is superstitious—but this doesn’t matter. Phil later joins in the joyous community festivities, notwithstanding the absurd event that occasions them. In a similar vein, I don’t care, and I don’t have to care, what the “pagan” objects around Christmas celebrations used to stand for: those meanings have fallen away, and the objects that remain standing can stand for something else.

 

But a text is a more slippery thing. Lacking a fixed material form—it can even squeeze between languages—it is monstrously adaptable. It can move around anywhere, and gather auxiliaries like an evil spirit. I’m reminded of the expelled demon in Matthew 12:43–45, who searches in vain for a new home and returns to the old one to find that the mind and body are more congenial now that they have recovered from him, and suitable for seven other worse demons besides. A text can be like that demon, humanity like that mind and body. Subject to interpretation as a condition of functioning at all, a text lends itself to what Luke 1:51 calls “the imagination of their hearts.” In Greek and Latin, it’s a tricky phrase, but the context is helpful: this is about those on high whom God righteously brings down. The words describing their condition imply that their power distorts reality, so that they believe and cherish their own lies, and cannot be shaken by any rival power less than God’s because God is the undefeatable champion of truth. Declaring the authority of an important text to be absolute and, at the same time, declaring one interpretation of it to be absolutely privileged looks like a symptom of this disease.

Biblical idolatry has manifested itself painfully through millennia of struggles for freedom of conscience and participatory governance, but it’s really only the United States that is still suffering from it—and, ironically, suffering the more that science, rationalism, and materialism prevail in general. American treatments of the Bible form a complex history, but certain strains have lately reached a crescendo of shrillness. Donald Trump has nonviolent protestors cleared from a street by force so that he can cross it and hold up a Bible in front of a church, signaling that whatever is in this holy book supports his interpretation (no matter how skewed and narrow) of civil unrest and his methods (no matter how brutal and impolitic) of dealing with it. The Bible, as a mere rallying cry, figures alongside the Constitution in the outpourings of white power, Christian nationalist, QAnon, and militia organizations.

The most richly exploitable symbols...are the texts that most Americans already have a long habit of revering, the Constitution and the Bible.

I think there has been a sort of cultural and intellectual arms race. The burgeoning prestige and power of science, technology, the globalized economy, and highly meritocratic professional institutions would mow down anything on the other side—the side that considers itself the defender of everything human, traditional, and authentic—but the most fanatical conviction. The more absurd the beliefs on that side are, the more empowering they are. Repeating what is plainly not so becomes a trial by fire to select and strengthen the most loyal and determined minds. And the most richly exploitable symbols for this test of fortitude are the texts that most Americans already have a long habit of revering, the Constitution and the Bible.

This story has old roots indeed. Consider one particularly telling example of its earliest manifestations. As described in Joseph Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Founding Brothers, in February 1790, Quakers brought anti-slavery petitions to the U.S. Congress. Politicians from the South responded, first, that the pacifist Quakers had no right to speak to such an important issue in a body politic for which they hadn’t sacrificed blood and property, and, second, that the Constitution and the Bible both guaranteed the right to slaveholding.

In the case of the Constitution, this was obviously wrong: the document only forbade any restriction on the international slave trade until 1808 (when it was banned), and left open the possibility of banning slavery altogether. The now-notorious three-fifths compromise dealt only with the counting of the enslaved in the census, and many considered the clause, like slavery itself, to be merely provisional. Certainly nothing in the text justified demanding that the galleries of the Capitol now be cleared of all spectators and journalists during the debate, or threatening a civil war, or foretelling doom for any judge in Georgia who considered the rights of slaveholders an open question. But then as now, political fury overcame all sense of reality, and a document that had been carefully designed to balance conflicting interests served as an exhortation to extremism. This mood—it does not deserve the word “argument”—about white supremacy and the Constitution would go on and on, clear through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, until today.

And again and again, the Bible would be invoked as a parallel authority, reinforcing the Constitution, though on a basis not much more solid. The Bible does matter-of-factly depict slavery and other bound servitude as normative, but the historical context is a world in which no one could conceive how society could be arranged otherwise. Yet at the same time the Bible contains much reassurance that there is no such limit to God’s mind: “redemption” is literally “buying out” from slavery or captivity, and the Bible’s God tends to do this with sublime love and patience, and finally does it at an unimaginable personal cost.

Most troubling to me as a Quaker pacifist is the idolatrous do ut des (“I give that so that you give,” the transactional relationship set up with a supernatural being) of violence. Jesus makes the all-nourishing blood sacrifice himself and of himself. There is nothing to negotiate. The pagan idol haggles with his human partner from hour to hour and is regularly hungry; there is no license he won’t grant in return for a brief bellyful. This ethic can easily verge into rampages when the sacrifices and the rewards are of the same bloody kind. For example, in the Middle Ages: I go crusading, endure innumerable hardships, bleed, lose my comrades, and in return I get to slaughter Muslims and take what is theirs.

Bizarrely, the physical symbol of the Crusades was the cross. The idol, again, is divorced from the commonsense meaning of the object and made to mean whatever is convenient, sometimes the opposite of the original meaning. In the case of the cross, the instrument on which an innocent man was tortured to death by a cynical occupying power to avert a riot by perennially oppressed people cannot logically sanctify military aggression. Likewise, mouthing the word “Constitution” can’t logically justify shattering the rule of fundamental law—quite the contrary. But the godlike dimension of the symbol, along with the symbol’s preferred residence in the expansive ego, invites such heinous reversals of meaning.

It seems ordinary because we are so close to it, but a similar reversal of meaning animates the mainstream American imagination, and explains the participation in the insurrection of veterans and even current members of the military and police: we bought the favor of the Constitution with our costly service, they assert, and now we cash in. Back outside the Capitol, recounting his valiant deeds, a rioter shows off a document stolen from Nancy Pelosi’s office. It has his blood on it, he brags. We have seen this before. A hunk of stone or metal becomes a living bull, and at the same time the bull becomes a god and a carnivore; an important document, inherently the means to help inform, organize, benefit, and protect human beings, becomes the means to empty their minds, and to strew chaos, crime, and destruction.

 

Mouthing the word “Constitution” can’t logically justify shattering the rule of fundamental law.

Many Quakers would say that there is no contradiction between the preciousness of the Bible or the Constitution and their limitations. Like the rest of the Creation, they need our respect, love, and selfless care. (Do I ever know, as a Bible translator, about the need for care.) Precisely because they are not God, they need us to make sure they remain what they were meant to be.

This is not to claim that Quakers enjoy any immunity from idolatry. We are living proof that it can afflict anyone and fix on anything, and can come back and bite people who believe they’ve successfully banished it. Quakers are careful in their treatment of the Bible, but we have idolized our very care in that treatment; we have idolized procedural rules invented to promote peace and equality; we have idolized silence. We idolized past achievements in humanitarian reform when we introduced solitary confinement to the penal system: How could this innovation be harmful, when it was ours? We have, in wealthy households’ self-satisfied gesture at material simplicity, confected an idol in the form of the elaborately stitched but pure white quilt, scores of hours’ worth of work that from a few yards away can’t be distinguished from a polyester mattress cover from Bed Bath & Beyond.

The example I would choose of the fight against idolatry in public life is not from my own sect. It is a fourth- and fifth-century bishop, Augustine of Hippo, whose own mother had given drink offerings at the shrines of martyrs before the Church cracked down on her. The rite, reflecting the pagan Roman parentalia, or holiday for ancestor worship, was only one of many idolatries available to Augustine in his youth: all the old pagan rites, the blood-sacrifice of the gladiatorial games, the humiliating ceremonies of the Manichaean heresy, the Roman elite’s veneration of public careers, their cults of parenthood, the clan, and the household, their parades of luxuries and other rare possessions (including beautiful slaves) during the ritual of the dinner party. Augustine longed for much that others treated as holy. How did he get, and stay, beyond servitude to this longing?

The only answer I can venture is that he really believed in God, a God with the power that must belong to a divinity if there is only one in the universe. In competition with God, nothing, not even God’s own book, could attract his devotion. Like other Church Fathers, he did make sweeping statements about the Bible’s perfection and authority, and developed gorgeous allegorical readings of Scripture, but he did not make it an idol. As a talented student and then a leading rhetorician, he was tempted to idolize literature, but after his conversion, he treated as tools everything he knew about words and everything he could do with them, and worked his speaking and writing into many forms of service to his adopted communities. This suggests an example that anyone of any faith or of none can follow: to act as if language belongs to the world of mere things, to treat it like a gift but not a god.

Published in the March 2021 issue: 

Sarah Ruden has published several books, including, most recently, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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