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Easter Post: Random Thoughts on Religious Literalism

April 3, 2015

I appreciate the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is a symbol for how we all “have a cross to bear”. And that those in an unbearable situation can take some solace from the thought that a higher being shares their suffering. That’s what myths are for. We all need fictions, because life is unbearable without them.

And I can understand that sometimes we even need to consciously let ourselves believe that our fictions are true… However, if you do this openly or in public, you risk looking silly. It also destroys the initial feelings behind it, because you have to become bullish enough to withstand ridicule or your own fears and self-judgments. This destroys one’s sensibilities and turns the original feelings into parodies of themselves.

I don’t know exactly where the image below comes from — it’s from an Australian newspaper. It’s one of the few occasions when Jesus and the Easter Bunny have been photographed together in the same habitat.

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Some guy has tipped ketchup all over himself, imagined that despite the hideous thrashings and beatings that a crucifee would have gone through, he would still have been able to keep his loincloth (or diapers?) neatly in place, and then stood on a post and pretended to be miserable….

…..While children walk by and receive chocolates from the Easter Bunny.

Folks, there’s a better way to do this metaphorical stuff.

Below are some (poor quality) pics I took inside one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve ever seen, the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. It’s a huge mosque with — incredibly — a cathedral stuck in the middle of it.

The contrast between the two approaches to the “sacred” is striking. First the (Andalusian) Islamic approach — no images of humans or animals, just color and designs, forms and empty space; and then suddenly in the middle of it, we’re confronted with torture scenes and bleeding Jesus.

The site was originally a Roman style Visigoth church. Then with the rise of the Umayyad caliphate-in-exile in the 8th Century, it was turned into a stunningly beautiful mosque, using some of the remaining Roman columns; dual arches inspired by the magnificent Roman aqueducts, blended with Islamic architecture and some new innovations.

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Double arches on top of Roman columns, with red brick alternating with limestone — brick giving strength, limestone flexibility. It is impossible to adequately describe the visual effect of all this. The columns in this enormous area, stretching off into the darkness, give a sense of space and meditative stillness; while the red and white double arches are buzz for the senses. Really, it’s like an architectural acid trip with a vision of eternity.

The hall used to hold 20,000 people for Friday prayers. From inside an alcove (see below), the imam would preach.

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Muslim rule eventually collapsed, due partly to in-fighitng among Muslim leaders, the rise of Christianity as a military and political force, and of course, the random cycles of history. (See Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World for an engaging history of the period.)

King Ferdinand II destroyed the center of the hall in the 11th Century and inserted a cathedral in it. The mosque became a glorified entrance hall. (Horrendous as this was, it probably saved the building from later destruction.)

So, in the middle of that extraordinary space, we suddenly get hit with bleeding tortured Jesus. From the profoundly evocative metaphorical to the crass and literal. For my taste, the shock of this change of style is extremely jarring, and accompanied by a great sense of loss.

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In dark alcoves all around the walls tortured and bleeding saints join with dozens of bleeding Jesuses. (It must have been fashionable at that time to emphasize how horribly chapped and grazed Jesus’ knees must have been. This one’s knees are only a bit grubby in comparison with the others in there. I think I counted about two dozen Jesuses, nearly all with horribly scraped knees. In some cases you could see the bone.)

So to Christians I say, you guys lost something when you removed old Judaic prohibition on images. It destroys all mystical or intuitive feeling. It enforces a particular way of experiencing and imagining things and inhibits others, and generally cheapens everything. Art is one thing, literalism, in my opinion, is another.

22A parrot would have been just as appropriate

Literalism is the death of spiritual feeling, in my opinion, and is always present in oppressive religious systems. There is only one way to interpret the literal, and that’s which ever way the most powerful priest says it is. For Christianity, the Inquisition followed the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Andalusia. Islam saw the triumph of the literalists over the philosophers, and a general stagnation of Islamic culture.

Posted by Yakaru

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5 comments

  1. I’ve long been a fan of abstract art. In art history, I’ve had a couple cases where an art history professor in a video or something would describe a photorealistic painting of some scene as “powerful” while I find it boring.

    I also think there’s something to be said about vagueness in entertainment. When a story leaves more to imagination, rather than clarify everything, it can make it more engaging since people will share their theories. The downside of revealing everything is that it makes it easier to find plot holes and inconsistency.

    One regret expressed about the briefcase in Pulp Fiction: They shouldn’t have put the orange light in there, because it limits what could have been in there to the supernatural, like the popular theory it’s Wallace’s soul.


  2. The fist time I watched Pulp Fiction, for some reason I thought it would be the Holy Grail !


  3. I think leaving more up to interpretation also shows more respect for the audience. Plus it challenges the artist to produce something that repays study. I understand that James Joyce wanted a reader to put in just as much effort into reading his books as he did writing them. (Which explains why I’ve hardly read him.)

    I understand Tarantino put the orange light in there because he didn’t know what else to do an didn’t have any plan for what the audience should interpret it as. I guess religions can start like that too.


  4. I am genuinely shocked by the number of times you use a kind Liptonian assurance that what you believe is true only by virtue of the fact that it is you who believes it, and therefore no other evidence to support your opinion is necessary. Eg. your comments about literalism.


  5. I really have no idea what you are referring to. What things have I asserted to be true in this article with no justification? The final paragraph stated clearly that it was my opinion that spirituality does itself an injustice when it becomes too literal. This is not asserting any fact, nor does it pretend to.

    Rather than dropping hints, can you be a bit more explicit? And how about a few quotes to make it clear what you mean by “Liptonian”. I find your comment very obscure.



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