The Critique of Idolatry, Representing God…

Roland Boer offers some interesting thoughts on the critique of idolatry found in Isaiah 44:9-20.  He suggests that, after a fashion, the monotheistic critique of empty idols is hoisted on its own petard.  The monotheist, like the atheist, attacks the idol-making polytheist by suggesting that this bit of wood or stone that is being worshipped is nothing more than a bit of wood or stone.  It doesn’t walk or talk or act or speak, and it is consequently silly to worship it.  The monotheist therefore determines that the symbolic connection that the idol represents must be severed.

But what kind of symbolic connection are we talking about?  Boer suggests that “[the] idol worshipper does not think of this stature [sic] or that icon as the god itself; no, it is a finger pointing to the deity.”  I’ll grant the possibility that the idolater does not believe that the statue or icon is, in and of itself, the deity but a representation of that deity.  But what of this notion of the idol as “a finger,” or a kind of sign designed to point the deity?  Is this really what an idol does?  Or, to put the point differently, is this what is being forbidden in the first and second commandments?  Let me quote Boer again:

These two commandments are not discrete items, for they flow into one another: one should have neither other gods nor idols, for they are intimately connected. In other words, there is a signifying link between god and idol, deity and representation, and the one who shows reverence for the idol does so in order to honour his or her god the [sic] whom the idol directs one’s attention.

Boer then goes on to suggest that in order to be consistent the monotheist must be an iconoclast, forbidding or destroying any symbolic representation whatsoever that might point to God.  If signifying links are idolatrous then all signifying links must be severed.  Boer rightly points out that such a commandment is exceedingly difficult, nigh on impossible, to follow.  Jews and Christians have always had signifying links to God, from the Ark of the Covenant to the various trappings of the Temple (to say nothing of the Temple itself), to the menorahs and crucifixes and scriptures that Boer notes specifically.  Boer doesn’t quite drive the point home, but the consequence is fairly obvious.  Humans need signifiers to enable worship.  We need sign-posts to direct us, to enable us to engage with what a theist would call the Divine and an atheist would call the social/psychological experience we call the Divine.  And so the anti-idol monotheist is in a bind.  The first and second commandments, which Boer rightly notes are tightly linked, demand that there be no symbols to point one to the Divine, but symbols are needed in order to point one to the Divine.

But what if there is a difference in quality between idols as symbols and other kinds of symbols?  This is where Boer’s argument breaks down for me.  Though I do accept that idols are a kind of pointer, I don’t accept that they are the same kind of pointer as a cross or a menorah.  The idol is a representation of the deity.  It is meant to capture and depict the god him/herself.  But a cross or a menorah is meant to depict the act of a god.  The first and second commandments are not, I would contend, a demand that there be no symbols that point to the Divine, but a command that there be no symbols that represent or capture the Divine.  There must be symbols to point to the Divine.  Even if there are no symbols made by human hands the Theist will still suggest that there are symbols that point to the Divine (“The heavens declare…” says the psalmist).  But those symbols cannot represent the Divine.  They are signs, not models.  They suggest something about God’s character, but do not claim to offer an accurate representation of who God is.  No such representation can be given because God is beyond such representation…thus the prohibition against representational images.

So the author of Isaiah 44 is not suggesting that there can be no symbolic pointer to direct our attention to God.  He is suggesting, instead, that no symbol can capture and represent God.  And if it could what kind of god would that be?  A god of wood and stone, deaf, dumb, and blind.

The monotheist does not say to the idolater “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no god to whom it refers,” but “that piece of wood points to nothing, for there is no (worthy) god whom it could represent.”

Fiddling, and The Servant Song…

Still fiddling with the new WordPress features.  I like this theme much more than the last and I think I’ll stick with it for a while.  Points to whoever can name the document in the header pic.

I’ve also been fiddling with the text-critical issues in Isaiah 53.  I’ve never troubled to read the LXX translation, and now I know I was the poorer for it.  There are some fascinating changes, but the one that’s really piqued my interest is the LXX reading that clearly indicates a taw at the end of verse 8, thus producing the translation εἰς θάνατον. I’m not reading any secondary literature on the subject at the moment (part of the assignment) and I still have lots of other texts to finish reading, including both Isaiah scrolls from Qumran and a quick look over the Vulgate (as much as my non-existent Latin can manage at least), but what seemed at first like a clear case of later Christian interpolation does not seem so clear-cut to me now.  More anon.

Also, what did I do to my back!?  I’m like a friggin cripple here!

This Too…

I’ve been listening to Derek Webb again today.  His song “This Too Shall be Made Right” off of The Ringing Bell did what it always does to me; it took hold of me, shook me, beat me, and embraced me all at once.  Here are the lines that cut the deepest, for me at least:

There’s a time for peace
There is a time for war
There’s a time to forgive
and a time to settle the score
A time for babies to loose their lives
A time for hunger and genocide
and this too shall be made right.

Oh I don’t know the suffering of people outside my front door
And I join the oppressors of those I choose to ignore
I’m trading comfort for human life
And that’s not just murder it’s suicide
and this too shall be made right.

The world in which we live is broken.  I am a part of that brokenness.  I am a collaborator.  I don’t want to be, and I try not to be, but I am.  Even that wasn’t really true.  I try to try not to be.  I want to try to try not to be.  You get what I mean.  That’s where this song cuts.  But it heals as well.  It heals with an honest belief in the possibility, the hope, that the God who made the universe still cares for it, and that he has determined that his creation shall be made whole.

This is the tension of true apocalypse.  I’m not talking about Left Behind garbage, but about the late prophetic and early apocalyptic literature of the Bible.  Joel, Obadiah, Micah, Daniel, and Revelation (among many others).  This is the message of the writers of the apocalypses and the so-called proto-apocalyptic literature.  God will intervene.  Not just will, but must.  The world is irrevocably and intrinsically broken, and though we try, and we try to try, and we want to try to try to fix it, to reconcile it, to be reconciled to God himself, we are unable.  So he does it.

An honest appreciation for this biblical literature, and an honest attempt to hold it in tension with the rest of the canon, leads to the kind of paradoxical but true sentiment of Webb’s lyrics.  The world is filled with horror.  We must be conscious of it, we must act against it, but we must also understand that it is God who will, in the end, bring it to an end.

12 Hours Ago…

I’m just getting ready to pack it in for the day and as is often the case I popped open my browser to check on my blogroll.  I looked down the list at posts I had read earlier, around dinner time, and then I saw the most recent post over on 4712.  It’s a wonderful little question that I found in one of the comment threads and I encourage anybody who is interested to wander over there and check it out.  What surprised me when I was looking at my blogroll just now is that I posted that question 12 hours ago.  Twelve hours ago I was taking a 15 minute break from working on my major linguistics paper (pragmatic fronting of non-Predicate constituents in Obadiah…yeah, I know how to party).  I just now finished working on it for the night.  Twelve hours ago.  This is just silly.  Didn’t quite finish either.  I still have to write the conclusion.  In theory that should be easy, so I’m gonna leave it till tomorrow when I go back to the library and work for another 16 hours.  Two more days, two more days, two more days….