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Burning the Koran is stupid, offensive, and generally wicked.

It is easy to show that burning the Koran is stupid for a Christian to do. You might think a woman’s beloved husband unworthy, but burning his picture is a bad opening move. You certainly will get her attention, but not her sympathetic attention. A decent rule for relationships is that starting off badly on purpose is stupid.

It is even simpler to show that burning the Koran is offensive, because a good many people are offended. I take it as an axiom in evangelism that offense must come, but woe to he who offends unnecessarily.

But can an Evangelical think burning books is wicked? This seems impossible since the Bible (apparently) commends book burning (Acts 19, ESV):

When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

Anyone who has debated Internet atheists knows this section of Scripture comes up frequently. * Usually, the “reasoning” goes, Christians are too good to be consistent. They should burn all their pagan books, but then they enroll in college programs like Torrey Honors and end up reading “wicked” texts like Homer.

Oddly, there are some extreme Christian groups that agree with the Internet atheists: we should burn books and Reynolds is being “worldly” not to do so.

Like all simplistic things, the argument is at least easy to grasp: if the Bible describes and commends someone doing a thing, then we should all do it. If we don’t, then we aren’t really followers of Scripture.

The difficulty is that the argument is rotten. The fact that the Bible commends one person for doing a thing in a particular place and time does not mean that it is appropriate to me or even good for me to do it. I am not, for example, a king in ancient Judah. What a king could do under the laws of ancient Israel is forbidden to me as a citizen of this Republic. This is good to remember the next time a politician stumbles: the governor of your state is not King David. The analogy may or may not hold, but it is certainly not an exactly parallel situation.

The “resignation” of King David would have been much tougher on Israel, than the resignation of any local politician.

About all one can say from the fact that the Bible commends burning a certain kind of book in one city at one time is that burning a certain kind of book in a certain situation may be commendable. Book burning is not inherently immoral. There are places and times where a man can and should burn certain kinds of literature.

Burning books, unlike burning babies, is not always wrong, though some people who don’t quail at saline abortions think sending any printed page to the fire is always evil.

The man who consigns love letters to the flames after a tough breakup may be starting fresh. He need not have a fascist bone in his body. If another man has been harmed by his collection, he may need to consign his collection to the flames as a symbol of his freedom.

It can be like flushing pills or liquor down the toilet for an addict.

This does not mean the private book burner thinks the government should burn books or that everyone must (or even should) act as he has. Getting rid of any piece of property, even property harmless to most, can be an act of great liberation. Men and women today, like those from Acts, still have need to lighten their load.

Nobody, I think, can or should condemn such private purging of stuff that clings to our souls.

That said, why wouldn’t public “burning of books” be appropriate today? Why would it be wicked?

There are two reasons.

First, history has changed how book burning is perceived. People now associate public group “burnings” with anti-intellectualism and fascism. It need not be a threat to liberty, it wasn’t when the powerless Christians did it in Acts, but it has been in living memory. The Nazis made public book burnings such an ugly sight that no sane human would be caught at one if he could avoid it.

The image is no longer one of self-purification, but of barbarians. In Acts people were destroying fraudulent and wicked books that had wasted their time and their souls. They had no power to make others do the same, but were giving a public witness to their liberty. They were not suggesting that no future library contain such works for academic study.

Fire was commonly associated with purification in the ancient world and the Christians were showing their freedom from the occult.

Fire and books no longer can communicate this harmless message. It cannot help but be confused this side of the Third Reich. It is not necessary for Christians to burn magic books in public, just to cease to look to the occult for answers. (Surely even a new atheist will not quibble with that?) He must repudiate all his past works and do so publically, if he has practiced them publically.

To use an image that is bound to be misunderstood lacks humility.

Second, a certain “brand” of Christians in the United States has used “public burnings” not as acts of faith, but of narrow intolerance. They have burned great music and great art, because they did not understand it. For every man who has consigned a genuinely evil work to the flames in parts of the nation, how many burned their copy of Catcher in the Rye?

Were men really liberated and the Gospel advanced when people tossed an unread Bulfinch into the flames?

The people in Acts were burning things they had loved in order to get free from a bad influence the books had in their lives. The Bible mentions the cost of the books: they were consigning prized possessions to the flames. Have the people in Florida read or understood the Koran they are burning? Are they texts they once cherished, but held them in bondage?

Or are they burning a book they have never read, understood, or loved? Are they engaged in cheap and easy theater by condemning a sin they have never wished to commit?

American Christians have so often abused communal destruction of property, disguising intellectual shallowness, laziness, and error with putative holiness, that the act is spoilt for all of us.  Members of our religious family have erred so often in this area, the outside community cannot trust our judgments.

We should share the fear. If liberal Christians have been too quick to accept, we have been too quick to condemn. Their vice may explain, but it does not excuse our own.

Communities once apt to burn the brilliant anti-Communist work 1984 should doubt their own judgment. This is especially true of burnings of works to which we have no prior relationship as is the case with the Florida church now about to burn the Koran. I can respect a man who turns from a book he has loved, because it has hurt his soul.

Who can respect a man who burns a book he misunderstands and purchased merely for the show of burning it?

It is stupid, offensive, and wicked in this time, in this place, for American Christians to burn books publically. We are not in the time of Acts, are not those men, have a different symbolic language, and do not live in their community.

I suspect men who burn the Koran do so not to proselytize, but to publicize and in the media attention their god has given them their reward.

*I call them Internet atheists to avoid associating them with thoughtful philosophy friends who do not believe in God, but also find the anti-intellectual antics of the online “new” atheists shameful.

More on: Culture, Books

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