Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Biblical Literalism is Idolatry
or, "Ceci n'est pas une idée"

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. "
-Exodus 20:4

At first, this seems pretty straightforward. After all, right after Moses gets the Ten Commandments, the Bible treats us to some old school Old Testament smackdown concerning the golden calf. The message could not possibly be clearer. God is not a statue; do not worship a statue.

But the other day I was reading my Bible, and thinking about this commandment, and I thought, "Gosh, interpreting the Bible metaphorically seems to be all the rage nowadays! I'm 'on get me some of that!"

And after an intense, nineteen-hour labor, you may gaze upon these fruits, these veritable cucumbers of thought, that I have syllogistically prepared for you. Try not to slip on the placenta; you'll get a 404.

First of all, what, if anything, is an idol? Let's work backwards. A symbol is a visual representation of an idea. An idol is a physical instantiation of a symbol; therefore, where a smiley face is just a picture, the corresponding idol would be an actual smiling face. Thus, we can define an idol as a physical representation of an idea.

Astute readers will have seen the image linked from the subtitle, but it's important, so I'll show it here.

This picture is called "The Treachery of Images" or something like that, and the inscription reads, "This is not a pipe." It's true. If you don't believe me, try to reach out, fill it with tobacco, and puff contentedly on it whilst jovially urging your chum not to get his knickers in a twist, old bean. It's not a pipe, and herein lies the treachery of not just images, but idolatry and the human tendency towards oversimplification.

Thinking of a picture as the real thing is a way to make the world easier to understand. The problem is the problem with all analogies. On some level, they all break down. When we label the item in a picture a "pipe", we ascribe to it characteristics that it does not have. It does not taste, smell, feel, or sound (?) like a pipe. It merely looks like one, sort of. However, every time we refer to the image as a pipe, we enhance the dichotomy between our perceptions and the real world. When we try to treat the image as an actual pipe, the analogy shatters, and we are left futilely groping at the screen.

The above example is frivolous; let's bring this back to the beginning. God was angry at the Israelites because they introduced a level of abstraction between themselves and Him, then proceeded to worship the abstraction itself as if it was God. It's the spiritual equivalent of lusting after a new car. The car is an "idol" of wealth and prosperity, but the physical object becomes more important than the ideas it embodies.

Irrelevant 19th century artwork and biblical allegory give us a firm foundation from which we can tackle the important stuff. The idea to be considered now is Christianity; its representative idol, the Bible. (Christianity, like all religions, is rich in symbolism and iconography, but you don't hear anybody saying that the True Cross forbids gay marriage or evolution in schools.)

The Bible is an idol in that it represents the word of God. Language itself is only representative of thought (I probably should have mentioned that sooner.) This is true because different translations of the Bible exist; thus, each one can only be considered as the closest possible approximation of the thoughts of God that would be understandable by humans. The Bible is, most assuredly, chock-full of words, i. e. symbols, that represent God's will. Therefore, the Bible itself is a physical representation of the idea of God's ordnance.

Thus, those who consider the Bible to be the literal word of God are worse idolaters than the Israelites making sacrifices to the golden calf.



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