YouTube and the Burning Books

Greg Clarke looks at a long tradition of putting important texts to the torch

It took an Australian to go through with the whole religious text-burning threat. Brisbane lawyer, Alex Stewart, decided it was a good idea to burn pages of the Koran and the Bible and then appear to smoke them in his now infamous YouTube video. Probably a Queensland thing.

Different religions react differently to having their texts assaulted. Famously, British muslims in 1989 led violent rallies of protest at comments made about the Koran in Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. Copies of the novel, and effigies of the novelist, were burned across England.

Catholic archbishops burned Protestant Bible translations during the European Reformation. Jews burned New Testaments in Jerusalem in 1980 in obedience to teachings of the Babylonian Talmud.

There are some stunning book burnings in the Bible itself. The wicked King Jehoiakim nonchalantly burned the words of prophecy that Jeremiah had written for him as a warning from God (Jeremiah 36). In 1 Maccabees (found in the Catholic Bible), the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV burned the Jewish Law (Torah) as he sacked Jerusalem in the second century B.C.

In the New Testament Book of Acts (Acts 19:19-20), early Christians burned their books of magic in a show of repentance (from their commitment to sorcery) so serious that the writer, Luke, recorded the monetary value of the bonfire!

These are quite obviously acts of protest aimed at publicly destroying the power of the texts being burned. They are an admission that words really do matter, books change the world, and texts are weapons of mass instruction.

It is no wonder that President Obama felt it was important to weigh in on the proposed Koran-burning by Reverend Terry Jones in Gainsville, Florida. While most media reports emphasised the smallness of Rev. Jones’s church, Obama and other major figures accurately recognised the far-reaching cultural significance of such a defiant act. An attack on words is an attack on someone’s grasp of reality, the lens through which they view the world.

Personally, I admit to feeling some satisfaction that the atheist Stewart felt strongly enough about his naturalistic worldview (saying in his video, “it’s only a f—ing book!) to protest in such a time-honoured manner. It was a stupid thing to do, yes, but it was also testament to his belief system; he felt the need publicly to disrespect something (devotion to religious texts) he holds to be ridiculous. In my books, this is better than apathy; at least he wanted to make a point.

Book burners have this in their favour — they know that words matter

In fact, in a perverse way, he was aligning himself with Rev. Jones and his threat on the Koran. Both were willing to ignore niceties, surrender personal safety and risk ridicule in order to make what they felt was a point that transcends etiquette. And both attracted far more attention than they must have imagined was possible!

After all, issues surrounding religion should stir our deepest emotions. It’s about life itself, about morality and beliefs and whether death is the end. If we are not stirred by such things, there really is something wrong with us. Book burners have this in their favour — they know that words matter, and they are even worth dying for.

But that is also the point at which the Queensland lawyer and the Florida pastor part ways. Where I would side with the bizarre collective of Rev Jones, President Obama, angry Muslims and the early Christians in Acts, and against lawyer Stewart, is in recognising this power of words. Only a crazy nihilist would say “they’re only books”.

Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article originally appeared at The Punch