ROBERT J. LEWIS
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,
or any likeness of any
thing that is in heaven above.
is a blossoming in stone.
are 2.1 billion Christians in the world; 1.5 billion Muslims,
900 million Hindus, 375 million Buddhists, 14 million Jews and
7 million followers of Baha'i, a relatively new religion founded
in the 1860s.
there was a time when there were no Jews in the world, until
Abraham, a Semite for sure and probably an Arab, decided to
concentrate the power of the many pagan gods into One. The new
religion that formed around this brave new concept was Judaism,
whose followers referred to themselves as Jews. There was a
time when there were no Christians in the world, until Jesus,
a Jew, revolted against Judaism and founded Christianity. As
with the early Jews, the first Christians were persecuted as
heretics, but their numbers, unlike the Jews, grew exponentially.
any idea -- philosophical, judicial, moral, religious -- to
take hold and endure over time, it requires charismatic spokespersons
and devotees willing to sacrifice life or a lifetime for the
cause of the idea, enabling it to attract the necessary support
and numbers to warrant the creation of a territory where it
can thrive and survive all manner of social and political upheaval,
the fact and feat of which serve to render the idea even more
attractive to potential converts.
as a practical consideration, every religion is bound to consider
matters unrelated to the nature and worship of God in order
to secure its membership and institutions.
the numbers tell, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have been
overwhelmingly successful in attracting adherents while other
religions have completely disappeared. Which begs the question,
what insights did their founders and administrators have into
human behaviour and human nature? What succour (consolation)
could they offer to human suffering, to the human condition
that made them so successful in winning over the estranged and
in respect to India's foreboding climate and geography, not
only understood that there could be no practical answer to institutional,
caste generated poverty, but that human beings are not constituted
to live without hope. So with a mind on preempting the inevitable
revolt and rebellion poverty spawns, Hinduism, as one of its
founding principles, introduced the dual concepts of rebirth
and reincarnation to appease and console its permanent and multitudinous
underclass (the untouchables). The net result of that initial
insight is that the religion continues to flourish to this day,
and the privileged continue to enjoy privileges that ordinary
persons of good conscience must regard as scandalous. And not
withstanding that 'hope' is
non-denominational aspect of hope, Hinduism successfully stitched
it into the fabric of its belief system, bending it to serve
both political and spiritual ends.
deference to class distinctions that would divide society into
the literate-elite and the majority-illiterate, Christianity,
which in 30 A.D. was more of a rumour than movement, made the
determination that written text alone would not be sufficient
to create disaffection among Jews with their religion. So very
early in the game, it sanctioned iconography (the pictorial
representation of a subject), so that its founding narrative,
the Christ story, would enjoy a huge visual edge over all other
competing theologies. Christianity’s first disseminators
and ambassadors grasped that -- at a mere glance -- a potential
convert could appreciate at some level the beauty of an image
or icon, and the observer would invariably be drawn toward the
persons and purpose which gave rise to the eye flattering experience.
on the other hand, fatefully proscribed both iconography and
proselytizing (actively seeking out converts), and has suffered
the consequences ever since if we accept as fact that majorities
are never persecuted and minorities, if not always, are always
vulnerable to persecution. Judaism, in chronic short-supply
of members, has been on the short end of the stick for most
of its history, the brutal facts of which have been forcefully
documented. In the 12th century, fed up with its minority status
and punishing exclusionary laws, in an attempt to level the
playing field, it unwisely approbated the practice of usury,
which Christianity at the time forbad. And notwithstanding that
money lending became the algorithm upon which the institution
of banking came into its own, usury did not win the sons of
Abraham friends and defenders.
Christianity’s genius is that it understood the immediate
aesthetic effects of the image on man’s appetite for all
things and manner of the beautiful. By incorporating into its
founding principles and procedures an aesthetic counterpart,
it seized the perfect medium to disseminate doctrine that even
men of reason could not help but embrace: that God willed Christ
back from the dead.
intended for Christians only, Christian iconography has lavished
the world with unparalleled beauty, and has been paid back in
kind via homage, pilgrimage and imitation. Even in the heartland
of Islam and Hinduism, visitors will find noteworthy examples
of Christian iconography in the form of ruins, relics and architecture.
to Christendom’s magnificent cathedrals, the synagogue,
for example, is a blunt production, a bleak house which must
fail to produce the awe of, let’s say, the magnificent
cathedral in Vézlay, France. In a small town of less
than 1,000, the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine towers, lords
over everything man made: the tiny, terracotta roofed homes,
the low farm buildings and their orchards. To an uneducated
peasant, it would require no sleight of mind to convince him
or her of God’s willingness and participation in such
an awe-inspiring production, especially in the context of primitive
12th century technology.
100 AD to the Renaissance, the development and evolution of
art was overwhelmingly Christian, culminating in the unsurpassed
frescoes of Duccio (1260-1319) and Giotto (1276-1337), and two
centuries later, the inimitable Madonnas and Child by Raphael,
Leonardo, Botticelli and others. During this time-line, Christianity’s
numbers grew spectacularly, in no small part due to the affect
and penetration of these Christian masterpieces on everyday
consciousness, which not only encouraged the curious to enter
the faith but to stay within through thick and thin and persuade
others to sign up.
all religions must concede to iconography is that even the most
skilled rhetorician will be hard pressed to articulate the essence
of piety and holiness, while the dullest mind cannot fail to
respond to pictorial representations of the same.
can a slack-jawed, thistle-soup-slurping peasant remain indifferent
to Botticelli’s “Madonna del Magnificat?”
One look and you already know you want to spend the rest of
your life in her slender solicitous arms; the perfect embodiment
of spirit and warm flesh on cold winter’s night, especially
when measured against the spent wife who has spent the long
day behind the plough, teats dried and stretched by a succession
of children, her scentliness and comportment not altogether
dissimilar from the beasts of burden that were housed in an
adjoining room. How could this good woman be expected to compete
with the saintly womanhood offered by Botticelli?
insult to injury to the status of women, when the Christians
finally conquered the Moors in Spain, one of their first official
decrees was to close the bath houses, which, in consideration
of women's more complicated anatomy, did not enhance their standing
next to the pristine Madonna and Child. That Mary -- from Fra
Angelico’s “Annunciation,” -- a woman sublime
but also very much of the flesh might evoke impure thoughts
would not be an unusual occurrence, fortuitously anticipated
by the convenience of the confessional merely steps away.
if its numbers and advantage weren’t already secured by
its magnificent iconography, Christianity’s music, like
its cathedrals, reigns supreme over all other religious music.
There’s a case to be made that Bach has done more for
Christianity than Jesus himself. What we get -- and from which
there is no escaping other than apostasy or radical neocortical
intervention -- from Islam, Judaism and Hinduism are endless
one note marathons that are more likely to inspire torpor than
religious awe. The devout, exposed to the unceasing drone that
must suffocate even the most lucid text, eventually yield to
a world weariness which they then confuse with the abjectness
demanded of them by their faith. Christianity’s music,
even at its mournful saddest, is brilliantly inventive, and
in its quiet exultation and ineffability speaks to man’s
latent dignity and civility like no other art. It is through
music and music alone that we begin to suspect there is indeed
a heaven on earth, and the band is Christian.
said and sung, Christianity has not fared well in the 20th and
21st centuries: its numbers are on the wane while secularism
is picking up the slack. If Christianity pulled ahead of all
other religions consequent to its insights into the non-negotiables
of human nature, secularism is proving to be even more insightful,
recognizing that human beings are too weak to refuse a template
where everything is permitted, since one only has to deal with
the consequences here and now in this lifetime.
with Christian art and music more available than ever through
travel and the secularizing Internet, it’s now possible
to have your cathedral and freedom, too.
yet John Lennon, who had it all, who claimed he was more popular
than Jesus Christ, wrote in song in ’68 that “happiness
is a warm gun.” And only two years earlier, the philosopher
Martin Heidegger uttered: "Only a God Can Save Us."