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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

On Burning Books

Much has been made of Terry Jones' trial and immolation of a Koran. Many people thought the act distinctly un-Christian. While Terry Jones is most assuredly not Catholic, and while good Christians can certainly hold different opinions about the prudence or utility of the act, it is undeniably the case that his act is well within the bounds of Catholic faith.

Of the 21 ecumenical councils of the Church, at least five of those councils were directly associated with the burning of books - the penultimate, Constance, is not only associated with the burning of books, but also the burning of the heretic who wrote several of them:

1st council of Nicaea - "Arius and his writings were also branded with anathema, his books were cast into the fire, and he was exiled to Illyria."

Council of Ephesus - Although the 431 AD Council did not itself require the burning of Nestorius' works, "The bishops who were suspected of being favourable to Nestorius were deposed. An edict of Theodosius II, 30 July, 435, condemned his writings to be burnt. A few years later Nestorius was dragged from his retirement and banished to the Oasis."

Council of Chalcedon - "The writings of the Eutychians were to be burned; their authors, or those who spread them, were to be punished with confiscation and banishment. Finally Eutyches and Dioscurus were both banished."

Council of Constance - "In this session forty-five propositions of Wyclif, already condemned by the universities of Paris and Prague, were censured as heretical, and in a later session another long list of 260 errors. All his writings were ordered to be burned and his body was condemned to be dug up and cast out of consecrated ground (this was not done until 1428 under Bishop Robert Fleming of Lincoln)....

John Hus’ books were burned by order of the council (24 June)…. He refused to retract anything and so was condemned as a heretic, deposed, and degraded, and handed over to the secular arm, which in turn condemned him to perish at the stake, at that time the usual legal punishment of convicted heretics. He suffered that cruel death with self-possession and courage and when about to expire cried out, it is said: "Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us!" His ashes were thrown into the Rhine."

Council of Trent – The council (1545-1560) did not need to expressly order Luther’s writings burned, because, following the pontifical bull Exsurge Domine (15 June 1520), book burnings of Luther’s writings took place in Louvain, Antwerp, Ghent, Utrecht, Bruges, Hertogenbosch, and Deventer. The pontifical vice-chancellor of Rome, the Legate of the Low Countries, Jerome Aleander, boasted of having burnt 400 of Luther’s books, 300 of which were seized in bookshops and 100 from individuals. Tyndall’s Bible was similarly burned. And no wonder: Exsurge Domine confirmed that heretics can licitly be burned, and ordered that all heretical works, where ever they might be found, also be burned.

(If it's any consolation, the Protestants burned books and heretics with equal zeal. Consider the fate of Michael Servetus, for instance, who was burned along with his book by Calvin, or Martin Luther, who famously burned the papal edict condemning his heresies. And it isn't just a Christian thing. The Buddhist emperors of China burned Taoist books with the same zeal).

And the Church didn't restrict Herself to burning just quasi-Christian people or books. During the Spanish Inquisition, thousands of Muslim theology books were burnt, including hundreds of copies of the Koran. Indeed, in celebration of the removal of the Moors from Spain, there was a grand book burning of at least 5000 Muslim volumes at Bibarrambla.

And it wasn't just the Koran that burned. During the Middle Ages, the Talmud was frequently targeted for the fire by Church authorities precisely because of the numerous blasphemies concerning Christ and the Blessed Virgin that it contains. Throughout Europe, the book was formally put on trial and censored or burnt, in much the same way Terry Jones tried and burnt the Koran.

As the Renaissance unfolded and the printing press dramatically increased the number of books, the number of book burnings carried out by the Catholic Church also dramatically increased.

Of the 15 to 20 million books printed before 1500, 12 million were in Latin. By 1530, there were more books in the vernacular than in Latin. The printing press permitted a modern Tower of Babel. Politically, it fractured Europe into various vernacular "nations" which contributed to the rise of the nation-state. Theologically, it allowed pretty much anyone to set out their own musings in an easily disseminated format. The Church tried to crack down on this via book burnings, but without much success.

The Point of the Flames

And here we must entertain the question of prudence. When there is no printing press, where there is no such thing as paper, a book is a very expensive undertaking. It requires much vellum or papyrus, both of which require intensive labor for production - vellum not only requires labor, but large herds of sheep or cattle, for vellum is made from their skin. Even today, real vellum is expensive and hard to find. And, once the vellum is located, you have to find someone literate to hand-copy the book that you want made.

In a society in which even the leaves of books are expensive, the skill it takes to inscribe those leaves with the correct encoding of ink is a very expensive and arcane hobby, much like the skill of flying a helicopter is today.

Most people don't know how to pilot a helicopter because they have no likelihood of ever owning or using one. Helicopters are too expensive. Similarly, in a pre-printing press society, books are simply too expensive, they require too much labor to produce for most people to own one or even learn the skills associated with correctly using one.

So, when a book is burned in such a society, the ideas expressed in the book will probably not long survive the fire. That was the theory, but it rarely worked in practice.

As we can see from the examples above, the very first ecumenical council of the Church burned Arius' writings, but that really didn't stop his ideas from spreading. The Church spent the next several hundred years trying to stamp out the heresy, and never really succeeded. Today's Jehovah Witnesses teach pretty much what Arius taught all those centuries ago.

How Effective?

So if book burning didn't even work back then, how effective is it going to be today, when printing presses around the world can turn out books faster than anyone can burn them? Indeed, what is the point of book burning at all, given that the Internet makes it literally impossible to touch the source text?

Book burning, both then and now, is a statement, a declaration of war against a specific idea. Just as certain people fight hard to keep "unsuitable" books out of the science classroom, so other people fight hard to keep "unsuitable" books out of other classrooms. Whether we are talking about the banning of a textbook on intelligent design or the burning of a book by Mohammed, we are ultimately discussing the attempt to condemn a certain set of ideas.

Now, many people say that, rather than burn or ban books, we should engage and refute the ideas expressed within them. And we should, indeed, engage and refute ideas. But engagement and refutation have many aspects.

Know Your Enemy

For instance, to someone raised in a Western Judeo-Christian culture, an idea is engaged and refuted by using Aristotelian logic. But for someone raised in an Eastern non-Judeo-Christian culture, Aristotelian logic has no special compulsion.

Islam, for instance, famously teaches that Allah is not rational, that rationality is beneath Him. Allah is greater than rationality, He is not bound by laws of any kind, not even His own word. In the war to maintain His glory - and all Islam sees it as a war between Allah and the forces of darkness - Allah is the greatest of deceivers.

So, when we demand that Westerners should "engage and refute" Islam, we implicitly demand that Muslims adopt Western Judeo-Christian standards of debate, that they adopt and treasure Western Judeo-Christian concepts of value and culture. We imagine seriously orthodox Muslims use the same Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian standards we use.

They don't.

Now, sure, Islam preserved the Greco-Roman heritage for us (although, it should be noted, they did not preserve Aristotle's Logic for us - we always had that book), but Islam never really used any of those books. What time they spent with the Greco-Roman classics was largely spent trying to make those works cohere to Islamic thought, much as Aquinas spent years trying to baptize Aristotle.

The difference? Aquinas ultimately showed that Aristotle's work could, indeed, be baptized. Muslims never managed that for Islam. That's why they ultimately never really did anything with the foundations of Greco-Roman thought. Islam stagnated because it couldn't think it's way out of the hole its theology had placed it in.

Precisely because Islam does not see Allah as a rational being, it is irrational for us to assume that logical debate will win over orthodox Muslims. The natural law may, indeed, be written on their hearts, but as Aquinas points out, that doesn't mean it is easy to discern or clear.

A priest friend once told me, "In order to start a conversation with some people, you must first break green lumber over their heads." Burning a Koran is certainly the theological equivalent of that attention-getting action.

Becoming a Soldier of Christ

But it isn't just a matter of getting attention. Given the Muslim propensity for irrational violence, the act of burning the Koran is a very personal declaration of war. It places the person doing the burning at very real and central risk of becoming a target for Muslim violence.

In short, the burning of a Koran makes you a soldier in the current war. Just as the Internet has made burning books old hat, so Islam has made travel to the Army recruitment center unnecessary. In this war, you don't have to pass a government physical or train in a government boot camp to become a combatant. Just burn a Koran, and you're in.

In fact, you don't even need to do that. Simply being a living, breathing non-Muslim makes you a combatant. In this sense, there is a real logical consistency, a real and positive motivation for burning a Koran. Muslims have already demonstrated that every non-Muslim is a target, that civilian casualties are not only not to be avoided, civilian casualties are to be encouraged.

So, when a civilian burns the Koran, he or she is not just saying, "The Koran is a blasphemous book", rather, he or she is saying, "I realize that you recognize me as an enemy combatant. I realize that you consider me worthy of nothing but enslavement and slaughter unless I convert to Islam. I refuse to convert."

Now, in agreeing to see themselves as a soldier, the civilian who burns the Koran has, in a very real sense, accepted at least some of the premises of Islam. Such a person essentially agrees that there is such a thing as the Dar al-Harb, the House of War. Such a person agrees that we who are non-Muslims are in that house.

So, in this sense, the burning of a Koran is a very Muslim act. And, for this very reason, a Christian might say "I cannot burn a Koran, for I do not accept that there should be such a House of War. I do not accept the Muslim worldview." And this is a view that is also accurate. It cannot be discounted or downplayed.

Still, for a people who feel themselves rendered impotent by a series of wars against Islamic radicals that are never-ending, by a president whose pro-Muslim sympathies are painfully and frighteningly clear, by a level of Muslim violence which cannot be controlled or managed, the burning of the Koran is an act by which any Christian can symbolically center themselves. It is a declaration of war against an increasingly chaotic universe, a Mahdi-inspired universe.

By burning a Koran, we tell the Muslim radical, "Here I stand. You shall not pass."

It may not be prudent, it may not be useful, but it is a stand worthy of respect.


Nilk said...

Thank you for your clarity yet again, Steve. :)

God bless you.

scotju said...

At last, some common sense on this subject! I've gotten so tired of secular and religious pundits wailing about how disrespectful it was to burn the Koran. Hey morons, the book teaches Christ isn't God's son, it teaches hatred of Christians and Jews, and demands war on all non-muslims. Why should I or any other person who is not a Muslim show any respect toward a book that has inspired mass murder, rape, and plunder for centries? Burn, Koran, burn!

Steve Kellmeyer said...

If we deny that the Jews worship the same God Christians worship, then we deny a point of Catholic doctrine and become heretics ourselves.

The relationship between the various faiths is much like the relationship between the various aspects of mathematics.

Math has various disciplines: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus. That's the order in which the subjects are mastered, and that's exactly what happens with those who seek God.

Pagans know basic arithmetic about God, but they do not understand any of the higher order maths.

Muslims understand the equivalent of algebra. They know God is One, all-Merciful, All-Just, etc., but they get many of the higher math concepts about God wrong because they really don't understand him at his heart.

Jews have a geometric understanding of God. They understand at least one of His covenants, which cannot be said of the Muslims, but Jews get no further than that.

Non-Catholic Christians are into trigonometry. They know that God is Three Persons in one God, but they don't understand what that implies. The conclusions they draw are generally wrong.

Catholics are the only ones who understand it all.

It isn't a question of worshiping different gods, but of insufficient understanding of the one God. As Hebrews says, only two things are necessary to seek God: we must recognize that God exists and that He rewards those who love Him. His law is written on the heart of every man, but it is hard to discern.

That's why every man has a shot at salvation. As St. Paul says, invincible ignorance may, perhaps, save them on that day of judgement.

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Maia said...


I think that nearly any devout Muslim would heartily disagree that Catholics and Muslims believe that God is "all-Merciful" in the same way.

Their complete misunderstanding of Love itself, and how Mercy is intrinsic to it, is why they think the idea of Jesus Christ is abhorrent. God dying for us?! A horror to them.

And modern Jews have annihilated their conception of the old covenant by their rejection of God in Jesus Christ. Just look at the Talmud and their reaction to Christ. NO one who truly understands the old covenant would treat Christ and the blessed mother so.

Steve Kellmeyer said...


I don't disagree with you.

Neither Muslims nor Jews understand personhood. The very term "person" was invented by Catholics to describe the three Persons of the Trinity. Prior to Tertullian, no one anywhere had a concept that corresponded to the Christian understanding of "person."

Consequently, Muslims cannot understand Love, since love requires an understanding of personhood. Without an understanding of Person and Love, the idea of covenant is going to be severely flawed as well.

Muslims don't have a Christian definition or understanding of love, but they do have a distorted understanding of it, because they were made for it, same as us.

For Jews, the story is the same. Their understanding of covenant is much superior to the Muslims, if only because the Jews experienced God's love in a way no other nation ever had. But precisely because Jewish theology has no place for "person", their understanding of covenant is also going to be incomplete, flawed.

No one can really understand God without being Catholic. But Muslims and Jews get closer than Hindus or Buddhists can.

R said...

Truly cogent and inspirational. Thank you, Mr. Kellmeyer, for putting into words what, up until now, my heart could only express.

mmghosh said...

Do you think Muslims and Catholics worship different Gods?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

No, Muslims and Catholics do not worship different gods, nor do Jews and Catholics worship different gods.

It's just that those two groups don't really understand God very well, so they make a ton of mistakes about Who He Is and what He wants of us.

According to the CCC, Muslims and Catholics worship the same God, who are the "first" among non-Christians (CCC 841). We are grafted onto the Jews, but the Muslims bear no such relationship with us, so Muslims are the first of the outsiders.

scotju said...

Steve, I'm sorry, but Jews and Muslims don't worship the same God as we do.
Allah, the god of Islam, was a pre-islamic pagan tribal deity. He also had three daughters who were also worshipped by the pre-islamic Arabs. He was the chief god in a polytheistic system of worship. All Mohammed did was to eliminate the other gods and create a man-made monotheism.
The Jewish God? It should be Jesus Christ, but they rejected him as God come in the flesh centuries ago. John's 2nd and 3rd epistles say those who reject Jesus as Christ and coming in the flesh are anti-christ. The 2nd epistle also tells us that if you don't have the Son, you don't have the Father and vice versa. In spite of this, God still wants the salvation of the physical Israel, but very few of them desire to believe Jesus is the Christ. They prefer the Talmudic traditions of the elders over the true traditions of the Prophets and the Apostles.
Since both of these religions reject Christ coming in the flesh, according to John, they can't claim God as their Father since they reject the Son. So, who's their daddy?

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Allah was, indeed, a pre-Islamic tribal deity.

Today's Jews certainly don't recognize the Son, or that God came in the flesh.

In this sense, both fulfill the spirit of anti-Christ described in John's letters.

However, the same could be said of every one of the patriarchs in the OT. None of them knew about the Son either - it is only with the Incarnation that God fully revealed Himself to man. The first person to find out about Trinity was Mary.

So, if we accept your definition, then we must be logically consistent and insist that none of the patriarchs are saved either. Sure, Jesus went to preach to the spirits in hell, but we don't KNOW who accepted His preaching, do we?

St. Paul points out that the pagans can be saved by following the natural law written on their hearts. According to Hebrews, that natural law includes a basic minimum understanding of God: to know that He exists and that He rewards those who love Him.

Jews, Muslims and others who are not explicitly Christians know this and can therefore be saved, as St. Paul testified.

When they are saved, they will be saved through Jesus Christ, for He is the only source of salvation.

It's just that they do not fully understand Who God Is, how He exists in Himself, nor the method God is using to save them (His Son's Incarnation and Paschal Mystery).

But that doesn't matter: our total understanding is not necessary to our salvation.

If it were, none of us could be saved, because God's mind is infinite and His reasoning far more powerful than our own, and we can never hope to equal it or fully grasp it.

As Archbishop Fulton Sheen told a woman who praised his homily and said "Archbishop, NOW I understand the Eucharist!" - he replied, "Madam, if you understand the Eucharist, you didn't understand my homily."

We are supposed to STRIVE to understand to the best of our ability, but our salvation is not PREDICATED on how much we understand.

Our salvation is predicated on cooperating with God's grace so that we are empowered to do what is right according to what little we have managed to understand.

scotju said...

Steve,Jesus said "Abraham saw my day and was glad". There are many prophecies in the Old Testament, (starting with Gen 3:15) that foretold the coming of the Messiah, the most famous one being Isa 7:14. The patriarchs placed their faith in those prophecies, and they were saved.
The Jews (especially the Jews) and the Muslims know their religions are man-made farces that reject the true God, and they know who Jesus really is, so unless they repent of their willfull unbelief, they will perish. No "invincable ignorance" here!
That pagan who will act according to natural law can be saved, I can believe, for I do believe that God does save those ignorant of Christianity, if they conform their lives with what they know what is good and holy. But if they refuse to do that, they're just as fit for hell-fire as the guy who knows everything, but doesn't obey.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Ok, well, if the Muslim and the Jew are not worshipping the same God we are, then by definition, they are pagans and can be saved.

Your definition also seems to leave a lot more leeway to the Muslims for salvation than it does for the Jews, because the Muslims WERE NOT visited by anyone who had revelations from God.

Mohammed wasn't a prophet, so there's no reason to think Muslims know any more about Jesus than your typical Hindu, Buddhist, pantheist, polytheist, totemist or animist. They are, from every aspect of your definition, nothing more than pagans.

So I don't know why you are so harsh to the Muslims. There's no "willful disbelief" on their part - they've never heard a particle of the Gospel to begin with.

Perhaps you can make an argument against the modern Jews on that score, but I tend to doubt it. Invincible ignorance is a much better description of their position. The only Jews who can be argued to have WILLFULLY disbelieved Jesus are the ones who spoke with Him, and they all died a long time ago.

mmghosh said...

Thanks for the exposition.
Whatever the precise derivation of Allah might be, at present Allah is simply Arabic for God - Arabic-speaking Eastern Catholics use Allah to mean God, as does the Van Dyke translation.
Since there is actually only one true God, everyone can be said to be worshipping Him. As you say, that not everyone can have an adequate conception of God, and that Catholics have the clearest conception. It is also true, again as you say, that having a clear conception does not necessitate salvation, and an unlettered, untutored individual following natural law can attain salvation just as much as a Catholic can.

Joseph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph said...

It was Calvin who, outraged that Servetus should take his private interpretation of Scripture in a unitarian direction, and even more that he should send critical comments written in the margins of Calvin's own Institutes, had Servetus very slowly burned.