Friday, September 10, 2010

A Brief History of Book Burning

A book-burning in 2010? Well, it’s nice to know there are some religious traditions that are still alive and well.

   At a time when America seems to be losing ground, we’ve found a contest we can win: religious crazies. For years, we’ve assumed the world’s loopiest extremists came from the Middle East. But with Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn a pile of Qurans on September 11, America is back. Our religious crazies are every bit as loopy as their religious crazies! This guy is so ready to rumble, even a military fetishist like Sarah Palin couldn’t sign on with him…and this is a woman whose own pastor (Pastor Muthee) persecuted a “witch” back in his home country of Kenya for causing a rise in traffic accidents. That’s a whole lot of crazy. Even Newt Gingrich, who is so ripe for a war with Islam he’s ready to resurrect the Templar Knights, has denounced the stunt. (Too obvious, I guess.) But Pastor Jones and his single-digit congregation have topped them both. 

   Of course, book-burning is hardly limited to religious wingnuts like the Florida pastor. Plenty of secular book-burners litter our history—Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti, Caligula, Robespierre, Stalin, and of course the Nazis. But book-burning has a particularly religious ring to it, and for no small reason. “The will of God” is one of history’s most frequent rationales for using literature as a fuel source. Sadly, burning Qurans fits right in with a couple thousand years of religious tradition. Check the chronology below. 

   Rather than rise above all this, religions too often fan the flames and even ignite the spark. The media, the clergy, and other polite company act as if book-burning were always a perversion of “real” religion, which is always redefined to include the nice stuff and conveniently ignore the nasty stuff. What the history shows is that book-burning is the pastime of authoritarians, and since religions are authoritarian by nature (unelected wise men dictate the rules and run the show), whenever churches get up a head of steam, some of their more ardent cheerleaders jump the shark.

   There is also the fact that monotheistic religions are in the business of saying, “Here’s the Truth. If you’re not on board, you’re part of the problem.” It literally demonizes the opposition and regards compromise with non-believers as sinister. Alien beliefs are seen as an existential threat. All this tends to rev people up and, once the other guys are successfully labeled “Evil,” it’s easy to toss another holy book on the barbie. 

   The big irony, of course, is that if the Quran burning happened, offensive and despicable as it would be, it would be a demonstration of America’s freedom of expression, as opposed to most church-inspired burnings, which were condemnations of free thought. Lucky us. In America, any loose screw can become a star. And while nowdays most people of faith despise the idea of burning books, we can't forget where we've been on this issue. To wit:

A Partial List of Religious Book Burnings:

168 BC: Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV, the Greek general ruling Jerusalem, had Jewish books of law torn into pieces and burned. [1 Maccabees 1:56]

ca. AD 50: Flavius Josephus, the great Roman historian, reports that a Roman soldier seized a Torah scroll and publically burned it. This incident almost caused a Jewish revolt, and Roman Procurator Cumanus appeased the populace by publically hanging the book-burner.

ca. AD 50: Pagans converted to Christianity allegedly burned their own books. “And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all;” [Acts 19:19]

AD 303-311: Emperor Diocletian, contrary to the tradition of pagan tolerance, ordered official persecutions of Christians and the burning of their books.

AD 325: The books of a priest named Arius were burned in the years following the Council of Nicaea because his ideas about the divinity of Jesus were determined to be heretical.  

AD 364: Jovian, a Christian Emperor of Rome, had the Library of Antioch burned after it had been stocked by an aide to his non-Christian predecessor, Emperor Julian.

AD 383: Theologian Priscillian of Ávila was the first person to be executed by fellow Christians as a heretic. Many of his writings were condemned and burned.

ca. AD 400: The utterances of the pagan oracle Sibylline were burned by Flavius Stilicho, a Christian general.

400s: The Etruscan books of worship and divination, the Etrusca Disciplina, were collected and burned.

435: Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, had views of the Virgin Mary considered heretical. An edict by Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II got Nestorius exiled, and his works were burned in many countries.

650: Uthmān ibn ‘Affān, the third Caliph of Islam after Muhammad, established an “official” version of the Quran and ordered the burning of all other versions.

1085: No sooner did the Christian Crusaders drive the Muslims out of Toledo, Spain in 1085, then they fought over which religious rite they should follow: the more traditional Mozarabic rite, or the foreign Roman rite. The issue was settled in a trial by fire—a book from each rite was tossed into flames. The Mozarabic book won.

1121: The provincial synod at Soissons, France, condemned the teachings of Peter Abelard, a famous forward-thinking theologian. He was made to burn his own book, Theologia, because of his controversial ideas.

1239: Pope Gregory IX persuaded French King Louis IX to burn some 12,000 copies of the Talmud in Paris in 1243. He wouldn’t be the last.

1242: After being charged and being found “guilty,” 24 wagonloads of the Talmud were burned in Paris.

13th century: According legend, a dispute between St. Dominic and the heretical Albigensians (Cathars) climaxed when both sides threw their books into a fire and St. Dominic’s was miraculously preserved. (See the Berruguete painting above; the book is floating above the fire.)

1382: Oxford theologian John Wycliffe, and his colleagues, first translated the Bible from the Latin into English. Many in the Church didn’t like the idea Scripture being available in colloquial languages.

1410: Wycliffe's books were burned by the Archbishop of Prague, Zbyněk Zajic z Házmburka, in the court of his palace in Lesser Town of Prague. The archbishop was illiterate.

1415: John Hus, who preached against the Church’s selling of indulgences, was a fan John Wycliffe’s work. Hus was excommunicated and sentenced to burn at the stake. One version of the story says that his books were the kindling. Another says that on the way to his execution, he was led past a bonfire of his books.

1490s: The Spanish Inquisition, under grand inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, burned a number of Hebrew Bibles and other Jewish books (along with a lot of heretics), and the Archbishop of Toledo, Ximénez de Cisneros, had some 5000 Arabic manuscripts set aflame in the public square at Granada.

1497/8: Girolamo Savonarola, one of Europe’s most pious pains in the ass during the Renaissance, launched the Bonfire of the Vanities, cheerleading the burning of everything that offended his religious sensibilities, which included fashion accessories, musical instruments, and classic artworks. He ended up on the business end of a stake-burning himself. Nobody seems to miss him.

1522: John Calvin, the great Protestant reformer, had as many copies of the Servetus Bible burned because he didn’t approve of it.

1526: William Tyndale translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into vernacular English. His Bibles were accused of containing many errors and propaganda, and they were ceremonially burned, as we he after being strangled to death. The Great Bible and The King James Bible is based on his work.

1553, 1568: More public burnings of the Talmud.

1562: Sacred books of the Maya were thrown into fires by Fray Diego de Landa, the acting bishop of the Yucatan, in Mexico. Missionaries to the New World destroyed just about all Mayan writings.

1624: The Pope ordered the burning of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, which were printed by Gutenberg himself.

1650: America’s first documented book-burning was a pamphlet by William Pynchon of colonial Massachusetts. It was nabbed by Puritan authorities who condemned it and had it burned in the Boston Common by the public executioner.

1873: The Comstock Law, which outlawed the delivery or transportation of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material (including books on birth control and human anatomy) was the victory of Anthony Comstock—a US postal inspector, politician, and promoter of Victorian morality. Some 15 tons of books, printing plates, and photographs were destroyed during his career.

1940s: Joe Stalin had the Judaica collection in the library of Birobidzhan, capital of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast on the Chinese border, to be burned.

1948: Religious leaders, along with parents and teachers, supervised the burning of some 2000 comic books by children in Binghamton, New York and Spencer, West Virginia.

1953: Senator Joseph McCarthy pressured the State Department to remove material by any controversial persons, Communists, or fellow travelers from all their overseas libraries. Some of them were burned.

1981: Sinhalese police officers burned the public library of Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka. It was the second largest library in Asia.

1981: The New Living Bible was burned in Gastonia, North Carolina on the claim that it was “a perverted commentary of the King James version" of the Bible.

1989: Copies of Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses were burned by Muslims at Bolton and Bradford in the UK, and on other occasions.

1990s: Congregants of the Full Gospel Assembly in Grande Cache, Alberta, Canada, burned books seen as in opposition to God’s will.

2001: Islamic fundamentalists pressured Egypt’s Ministry of Culture to burn 6,000 books of homoerotic poetry by Abu Nuwas.

2000s: Because they include witchcraft and magic, Harry Potter books have seen staged burnings by churches in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Charleston, South Carolina, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

"Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." --Heinrich Heine, 1821

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