The Christian, it should be safe to say, but apparently isn’t, should not stomp on a paper with Jesus’ name on it. He should have a physical reaction at the thought of doing so. Matthew Franck dealt well and at length yesterday with the latest national Christian controversy in his The “Stepping on Jesus” Contretemps.
Yet one of the commenters, responding to Matt’s question “Am I reading too much symbolic communication into the act?”, writes:
Yes, I would say so, and that is what makes the exercise and this controversy quite fascinating. Christians don’t worship idols or images. The letters J E S U S that you have written yourself on a piece of paper are not Jesus Christ. The actual, living, historical person we call Jesus was not even called Jesus. On the other hand, many Hispanic men are named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation).
The letters are not Jesus, well duh, but they are not not Jesus either. They bring Jesus to mind, they participate in his being in some way, and I suspect no Christian in the world could manage to read that name as five random letters in a way that makes stepping on the paper a meaningless act. Images are not just pictures, if I may put it that way. Nominalism may be philosophically plausible but in cases like this I think it’s psychologically impossible. Stepping on the Name of Jesus will always be stepping on Jesus.
On his weblog Mere Inkling, a retired chaplain named Robert Stroud quotes a relevant passage from C. S. Lewis’ The Hideous Strength. One of the main characters, a vain young sociologist named Mark Studdock, desperate to be on the inside, is being initiated into the service of a genuinely evil enterprise, and finds that part of the initiation involves trampling and insulting a nearly life-size crucifix. “Mark had never believed in it [Christianity] at all,” but now
At this moment, therefore, it crossed his mind for the very first time that there might conceivably be something in it. Frost who was watching him carefully knew perfectly well that this might be the result of the present experiment. He knew it for the very good reason that [he had briefly experienced, and dismissed, the same thought during his own initiation].
“But, look here,” said Mark.
“What is it?” said Frost. “Pray be quick. We have only a limited time at our disposal.”
“This,” said Mark, pointing with an undefined reluctance to the horrible white figure on the cross. “This is all surely a pure superstition.”
“Well, if so, what is there objective about stamping on the face? Isn’t it just as subjective to spit on a thing like this as to worship it? I mean— damn it all— if it’s only a bit of wood, why do anything about it?”
“That is superficial. If you had been brought up in a non-Christian society, you would not be asked to do this. Of course, it is a superstition; but it is that particular superstition which has pressed upon our society for a great many centuries. It can be experimentally shown that it still forms a dominant system in the subconscious of many individuals whose conscious thought appears to be wholly liberated. An explicit action in the reverse direction is therefore a necessary step towards complete objectivity. It is not a question for a priori discussion. We find in practice that it cannot be dispensed with.”
“An explicit action in the reverse direction,” that is what the author of the education book and people like the adjunct professor who imposed the exercise are asking for, whatever they think they’re doing.
It is also a good definition of sin, which this day of all others should make clear to us. This is the day we mourn (yet celebrate) the event that all our uncountable acts of stepping on Jesus brought. The Christian will at least avoid stepping on his Name when it’s written on a piece of paper. That’s an obvious explicit action in the reverse direction to avoid.