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Tony Grist

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Idolatry [Dec. 12th, 2010|10:52 am]
Tony Grist
Someone swung from a flag depending from the side of the Cenotaph, someone else chopped up the famous Glastonbury thorn. Cue widespread outrage.

The flag swinging was the exploit of a silly young ass high on adrenalin and who knows what else. No damage was done. The attack on the Glastonbury thorn may have been an act of revenge on the owner of the land- who is currently implicated in a case of serious fraud. The thorn has been chopped down before- and replanted. The current tree on the site- far from being of great antiquity as its mourners tend to assume- was planted in 1952- which makes it younger than I am. 

I despise cultural vandalism, but the best way to be defended against it is not to turn things into idols. The Cenotaph is a big block of stone, the Glastonbury thorn is just a tree. They are not the things they represent.  An idea- if it's a good idea-  survives the desecration of its symbols. 
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: chiller
2010-12-12 11:43 am (UTC)
Yes, this, totally.

I always thought Christianity had an actual commandment forbidding idolatry, yet it seems very attached to its idols: trees, crucifixes, crying statues, bones in boxes. I've never understood how that sits alongside the destruction of the golden calf.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-12 12:24 pm (UTC)
All the Abrahamic religions have injunctions against idolatry- which they manage to get round. Christianity has long since given up even the pretence of keeping the commandment, Islam has replaced the idolatry of the image with the idolatry of the book. The Jews probably do best- but they too have sacred scrolls and holy places.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2010-12-12 12:46 pm (UTC)
I don't think that it's so much that "they get round the injunctions" as that it's a constant problem to distinguish between respect for the symbolic representation of ideas, and putting the symbols in the place of deity - which is idolatry
Look at the word worship - its root is surely worth? So worship/respect should surely be measured by the worth of its object?
There is a huge difference between respect/recognition of worth,as represented by ideas or objects, and respect/recognition of deity
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-12 02:40 pm (UTC)
"There is a huge difference between respect/recognition of worth,as represented by ideas or objects, and respect/recognition of deity"

Yes, and we're always in danger of confusing the two.

I like the Orthodox idea that the art work is a window through which we perceive divine reality.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2010-12-12 12:36 pm (UTC)
Absolutely agree that ideas survive desecration. In some cases, it's even arguable that desecration creates memories that strengthen the idea.
About idolatry - I've never understood the "relic" thing either, but I don't see it as idolatry.
Idolatry, AFAIUI , is the substitution of recognition/worship of deity with other ideas or objects
No-one, as far as i know, has ever suggested that relics take the place of deity - isn't it about (possibly misplaced) respect for the body as the temple of spirit?
As for trees and crucifixes - they aren't two separate things - they remind us of the ideas and ideals of the past - the "groves" of ancient Judaism, once despised, but now respected, and linked with later martyrdoms on trees, as part of the history of Judaism and Christianity.
None of those ideas, to my mind, equates with idolatry. indeed, the recovery of respect for "groves" and trees represents, to me, the recognition that they aren't idols, but a representation of ideas
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-12 02:16 pm (UTC)
I'm using "idolatry" in a fairly loose sense.

A young man swings on a flag at the Cenotaph. No particular offence was intended. No damage was done. He's a high-spirited young idiot. Those who have reacted with spluttering fury are according a lump of stone far more respect than is right or proper. He didn't insult the war dead, he swung on a flag. When we invest stone and cloth with this degree of significance we go wrong. Our values are askew. And I can't think of a better word for this deviation than "idolatry".

The same with the Glastonbury thorn. One spokesperson is reported as having said that the vandals "struck at the very heart of Christianity". Oh no they didn't; they cut down a tree. There has been a similar over-the-top reaction from some pagans. I deplore what happened, but let's have a sense of proportion about it.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2010-12-12 10:33 pm (UTC)
Besides, there is very little evidence that the thorn has any real connection with Christianity
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[User Picture]From: endlessrarities
2010-12-12 12:58 pm (UTC)
This is probably where we differ in opinions. I despise the mindless destruction of built heritage because it can never be replaced in its original form and it betrays a particularly daft destructive mindset on the part of the destroyers.

Unchecked mobs cause destruction - the Reformers in Scotland trashed so much medieval art, sculpture and music and this is a lost cultural legacy which can never be replaced. Contrast this with the Soviets, who left the Winter Palace in St Petersburg intact, when it would have been perfectly understandable for them to torch it. I'm really grateful to them that they showed such restraint.

You could argue, I know, that destruction in this way is part of a aite's long term history and is therefore a valid part of its biography. And yes, I know we now study graffiti as part of the historical record, but...

These twits ruined it for a whole bunch of peaceful protestors who were marching with a very important message that we should all be heeding.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2010-12-12 01:22 pm (UTC)
Agree absolutely that there is a separate problem about unchecked mobs and mindless destruction - was simplistically addressing the question about idolatry - thank you for putting me straight about another aspect
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[User Picture]From: endlessrarities
2010-12-12 06:29 pm (UTC)
The really, really long-term part of me thinks, well... Over the centuries and millenia, will it really matter? Continents shift, coastlines change, the buildings and monuments we fight tooth and nail to protect will end up as so much dust. My name is Ozymandias, etc...

Oh, dear. I'm all doom and gloom tonight. It's probably the news that the Scottish Government is imminently going to be rethinking the tuition fees issue themselves. Ah well, the last bastion of sanity is going to tumble:-(
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-12 02:32 pm (UTC)
I don't think we differ really. I'm as much of an enthusiast for old churches and the like as you are. I admire the Cenotaph- both as a restrained symbol of national mourning and as a magnificent work of art by Britain's greatest 20th century architect. What I'm uncomfortable with is the elevation of sticks and stones into objects of cultic veneration. No real damage was done to the Cenotaph, no purposive insult was offered to the war dead; all that happened was a young man swung on one of the flags. It's behaviour I would wish to discourage- naughty behaviour- deserving of a slap on the wrist- but no more.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2010-12-12 07:26 pm (UTC)
The public debate's died down somewhat here in the States, but burning the national flag is still guaranteed to carry a fair amount of controversy with it, especially within certain regions of the country. I realize there's something of a difference between a symbol that is singular (i.e a specific monument) and one that is mass produced (flags), but there's most certainly a danger in both cases in conflating a symbol with what it represents.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-12 10:10 pm (UTC)
We tend not to get too excited about flags. We've been putting the Union flag on T shirts and underpants and coffee mugs for a long time now. What upset people was not so much the flag itself but the location of the flag- at the Cenotaph- the national war memorial which is the holy of holies of the British establishment.
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[User Picture]From: airstrip
2010-12-12 08:11 pm (UTC)
All the more reason to oppose the increase in tuition prices, what else is that but cultural vandalism? Worse still, against monuments yet to be built to heroes you now may never know?
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-12 10:12 pm (UTC)
Yes. That is very well put.
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[User Picture]From: airstrip
2010-12-12 10:22 pm (UTC)
Were I English, this apparently doesn't apply outside of England, I'd probably take to the streets. And I'm not a street-taker by habit or sympathy.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-12 10:40 pm (UTC)
I'd be on the streets if I were a student- no doubt about it.
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[User Picture]From: daisytells
2010-12-13 03:04 am (UTC)
I'm so glad you said that. I have been saying it for years, and it's nice to see it in print. Whether it is a national flag, a Bible, even a wedding ring, it is not the divine, and should not be idolized. As for the parade of folk heroes and rock stars: well, same there too!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-12-13 09:14 am (UTC)
Human beings seem to have a deep-seated need to fetishize objects- and will do it even in the face of religious prohibition. Idolatry is always a bad idea, I think. It makes us foolish and vulnerable.
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