St Paul Meets Jehu: Is Quran Burner Terry Jones a Blasphemer or an Iconoclast?

I’m not sure blasphemy (a word from the Greek blasphemos, meaning “evil speaking”) is the right word for what Florida pastor Terry Jones did. To my mind, blasphemy has two levels. The first is honest and conscientious expression of non-Orthodox opinion. If I have the following exchange with a Christian, for example, I’m clearly expressing blasphemous opinions: 

Believer: Why aren’t you a Christian?

Me: Because I suspect that the triune God is imaginary and I doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.

To express such views concerning the trinity and Jesus are, from the vantage of the Orthodox Christian, blasphemous. They are expressions of evil speech, and are therefore offensive and displeasing to the ears of the Almighty.

And this is where blasphemy takes on its second characteristic: owning the appellation of evil speech that the Orthodox attach to it. If the Orthodox are going to call non-Orthodox opinion “evil speech” (and not merely the honest expression of dissent), then there are some people who wish to theatrically embrace the stigma as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. And so we end up with fundraising stunts like this:

The Center for Inquiry, in its regular confusion over what fund-raising gimmick to try on next, made 2009 its first international Blasphemy Day and invited people to send in cartoons, jokes, slogans, and anything else to show just how lucky we all are to live in a country that cherishes free expression and where Nothing and No-one is sacred.  

In the Blasphemy Day example, notice that an overt act of blasphemy is used, not just to mock religion, but to affirm the right to unfettered speech.

So all three forms of blasphemy—as an expression of conscience, as theatricality, and as an assertion of speech rights—are, in my view, in accord with liberalism. But in an age in which image (not speech and print expression) drives mass communication, there is the temptation to shock, not with words, but in the destruction of sacred objects and symbols, and this is not exactly blasphemy but iconoclasm.

Unlike blasphemy, which is utterly consistent with a liberal society, iconoclasm is more borderline in nature—an act substantially less liberal. If, for example, one blasphemes a religion—either in the honest expression of non-Orthodox opinion, in holding it up for ridicule and parody, or as an assertion of the absolute right to do so—there is still an implicit social contract in effect. Something in a free society is being argued and thought about with words among literate people.

Not so with iconoclasm. With iconoclasm something eliminative is going on. You are done with talk. You are in the realm of both symbolic and literal destruction. You want the public square wiped clean of a group, and to demonstrate this you destroy the physical objects associated with that group. And the message reaches not just the literate but the illiterate, who might then feel impelled, in the name of their dignity, to “retort” with the only tools at their disposal (some sort of counter iconoclasm or violence).

There are numerous examples of iconoclastic behavior in the Bible. After St Paul, for example, preached the gospel in Ephesus, and won numerous converts, the Book of Acts says, with approval, that there was a book burning (19:19-20 KJV):

Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed.

Book burning is closely akin to iconoclasm (the destruction of things sacred to others), and when we think of iconoclasm, we perhaps think first of the destruction of temples or the smashing of idols, as in this fearful gesture of iconoclasm under the Taliban-like reign of the zealous monotheist Jehu, recorded in the Bible, in II Kings 10:26-27 (KJV):

And they brought forth the images out of the house of Baal, and burned them.

And they brake down the image of Baal, and brake down the house of Baal, and made it a draught house unto this day.

A “draught house” is a polite way for the King James translators to tell us that the ruins of Baal’s temple were used by the Judeans as a place to take a piss.

Book burning and iconoclasm have disturbing precedents not just on the “Jerusalem” side of Western cultural history, but also is represented on the “Athens” side as well, as when Aristophanes, in his comic drama Clouds, ends the play with the gleeful burning of the school of Socrates (which presumably possessed books as well). Plato famously attributed at least part of the reason for Socrates’s death to the popular prejudicial passions inflamed against him by Aristophanes’s play.

And atheists are not immune from the temptation to iconoclasm either, as when, in the summer of 2008, P.Z Myers, in a bizarre and hysterical anti-Catholic rant, asked his readers at his popular blog, Pharyngula, to sneak a consecrated Catholic host out of a Catholic church and send it to him. He said that he wanted to record himself desecrating it, and then post it on the Internet:

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.

Of course, P.Z. Myers scored his Catholic wafer and satisfied himself with a public gesture of desecration, joining the ranks of other iconoclasts and book burners, a short list of which includes these:

  • John Calvin in his destruction of Catholic art and icons in Geneva;
  • Nazi book burners in Vienna;
  • anti-Vietnam War American flag burners in the 1960s;
  • Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan gleefully dynamiting the Bamyan Buddhas; and 
  • fundamentalist Pakistanis burning Danish flags.

Such behavior has an ugly history both within the Bible and without it. Here’s a 16th century depiction of Protestant Calvinists engaged in an iconoclastic “cleansing” of a Catholic cathedral:

Thus, whereas blasphemy can be a prelude to thought, iconoclasm is most frequently a prelude to war (or something accompanying war).

So Terry Jones is more an iconoclast than a blasphemer. His illiberal St Paul-like book burning iconoclasm was met (by a largely illiterate and impoverished mob in war-torn Afghanistan) with an illiberal Jehu-like iconoclastic escalation (an attack on a symbol which many in the West regard as sacred—Enlightenment secular humanism). That secular humanism symbol was embodied in the form of a United Nations building. What, however, to call those who then decapitated United Nations workers in response to pastor Jones’s iconoclasm are a bit easier to define. They’re not just iconoclasts. They’re murderers.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to St Paul Meets Jehu: Is Quran Burner Terry Jones a Blasphemer or an Iconoclast?

  1. peddiebill says:

    Perhaps the right expression is more like”thoughtless stupidity” The fact is that the religious leaders in Afghanistan had signalled that if Terry Jones went ahead there would be serious trouble. The US commanders in Afghanistan confirmed this. Looking at the other reactions against similiar insults to faith made the reaction a virtual certainty.
    Yet Pastor Jones not only went ahead, he tried to distance himself from the inevitable reaction and claims he is now going to do something even worse. Perhaps more plain speaking is needed about the danger that Pastor Jones poses for the Peace Keeping forces – or is he unable to learn.

    • concerned christian says:

      I cannot say with certainty what motivated Terry Jones to commit his act, but it is interesting that he is not the only one who criticize Islam today. Just read these comments made about another critic of Islamic aggression, the Danish cartoonist
      When I met Westergaard before this latest attack, there was a touch of melancholy in his eyes – but also anger and defiance. “I do not see myself as a particularly brave man,” he said then. “If the country was occupied, I don’t think I would be running around doing sabotage; I would probably be sitting somewhere doing my drawings. But in this situation I got angry. It is not right that you are threatened in your own country just for doing your job. That’s an absurdity that I have actually benefited from, because it grants me a certain defiance and stubbornness. I won’t stand for it. And that really reduces the fear a great deal.”

  2. Paradigm says:

    I’m not sure where you are going with this. Yes, iconoclasm is stupid and confrontational, blasphemy less so – although the very idea of reasoning with fundamentalists is in my view a bit naive. It’s seems implicit in this post that we can better our relations with the Muslim community by less iconoclasm and more blasphemy.

    This I think is an illusion. By using words rather than imagery we merely exclude the illiterates from the conversation. Rather than to enrage them we keep a low profile. This sends the message to the rest of the Muslims that violence and intimidation will shut us up.

    • santitafarella says:


      You present the dilemma accurately when you say that “we keep a low profile. This sends the message to the rest of the Muslims that violence and intimidation will shut us up.”

      But the dilemma goes the other way as well. If we keep a high profile and theatrically draw Muhammad and burn Qurans everywhere and with abandon (to show we believe in free expression and won’t be shut up), we end up with other problems.

      In life there are two realities: the “reality reality” and the “social reality.” You may be right in the “reality reality” department, but you’ve still got to take into account the other conscious beings around you and their perceptions, and navigate the social reality that they bring into the equation of what to do in any given situation.

      As a pragmatic matter, clear-eyed containment and waiting reactionary Islam out is probably where this has to go. It’s like the old Soviet Union. Or a hostage situation. Bravado is noble and admirable—but it gets you nowhere with illiterates or the impoverished—or their Machiavellian leaders (in this case, the Iago-like mullahs who incite them).

      At this point, we’re playing chess, not football. There’s no need to clash in public with blind badgers (even if you can and want to).

      And, historically, iconoclasm is usually a prelude to war (think of the Nazi book burners of the 1930s and the Calvinists of the 16th century). You’ll know we’re heading for war with Islam as a civilization when iconoclasm as bravado and as a “stick it” gesture becomes widespread in the West.

      If the price for cooler heads prevailing and waiting out an ultimately dysfunctional religious system is crowing rights to whether “violence and intimidation shut us up”, so be it. I’d rather we walk around stupidity than take the bait and smash into it.

      A hundred years from now Islam will be a footnote in the direction that civilization is going. It will moderate or be left behind. The oil of the Middle East will be gone. There will be no Saudi money to drive fundamentalism. The broken wheel squeeks loudest.


      • Paradigm says:

        Yes, there are problems to both approaches. But are we really keeping a high profile by having a few religious crackpots and hotheaded artists and journalists engaging in iconoclasm? I would agree to that if thousands or at least a few hundred would be into it. I think we’re keeping a normal profile. Also remember how the fundamentalist mind works. If we keep a lower profile they will hardly be content, but instead focus on whoever is keeping the least low profile. There is a reason psychiatrists compare it with OCD. And if we play along we are on that slippery slope. That’s why we can’t walk around it.

        I remember in school there was this bully I was in a fight with and it was inconclusive who had won. Next day I met him on way to school. I didn’t walk around him but stood in his way looked at him and made him walk around me. Really scary since he was three years older than me, but he never bothered me again. Point being you won’t come off as cool if you walk around someone who is threatening you, only frightened.

        I don’t know what will happen in the future. The oil will run out or become obsolete, that much is sure. But what happens then, when 1.5 billion Muslims suddenly are supposed to live on an economy the size of Finland’s? Like you said iconoclasm is a precursor to war, but the Nazis rose to power through the Versaille Treaty and the hyperinflation that followed it. When people loose everything they don’t mellow, they get desperate.

  3. Pingback: Dearborn Free Speech Watch: Pastor Terry Jones, Islam, and the First Amendment | Prometheus Unbound

  4. Mo Trauen says:

    Really? Desecrating a cracker is the same as burning books or destroying ancient, historically significant art? You are a lunatic and a fanatic if you can’t tell the difference. You think the cracker is sacred because some pedophile in a dress said magic words over it? Because people severely brainwashed since infancy think it has magic properties? Clearly, you must be one of those brainwashed individuals.

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