Oh Lord. Please save me from your followers.
Someday I think I’m going to write a play. In the play, there is going to be a dynamic, charismatic figure. S/he will have some really deep insightful ideas about life. S/he will share these ideas with people, and then, those people will misinterpret everything, and get it all wrong.
It is the kind of story that brings to my mind one of my favorite lines in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In the film, the alleged Messiah says “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” But the crowd hears, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” To which one spectator replies, “Well, he means… makers of all dairy products.”
What the leader gets right, the people seem to get wrong.
The relationship of message to recipient always fascinates me. St. Francis preaches a message of rejecting material possessions, and the response we have to him, is to build a village full of gift shops right next to his grave. Jesus says make peace, and so Christendom sets out to kill anyone who disagrees with Jesus’ message. It makes sense! Right?
Ghandi once said something along the lines of this, “I have no problem with Jesus Christ, it is his followers I don’t like.”
I’m thinking of these things as I view a collection of exquisite porcelain plates made for the Ottoman Emperor which is on display in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I’ve just been to the famous Blue Mosque am struck by a major difference between Christianity and Islam. The artistry in Islam contains no images.
It is a tradition in Islam that originates from a particular interpretation of the Koran. Essentially, it dictates that God created the world - human beings, fish, really small rocks - and human beings should not recreate that which God created.
Brilliant! We will be a religion unlike the infidels! We will not have golden idols! We will not have stone images! We will only have the words of Allah given to us by Mohamed. This is how we shall decorate our walls!
And in the end, the decorations are just as elaborate, with just as much gold, and with just as much excess. The artists of Islam have decorated the walls and utensils of the mosques and the imperial palaces in this manner. They got the letter of the law exactly right - no images - but there is still plenty to idolize, and plenty to distract you from the notion of God’s no-thing-ness.
Of course, perhaps this is just a matter of perspective. Mohamed was responding to Arab polytheism, Christianity, and Roman emperor worship when he forbade recreating what God created. His solutions were necessary to get the people back on track. Christianity was actually struggling with the same issue at the same time. And here in Istanbul (Constantinople) that controversy was felt deeply.
I’m referring to the Iconcoclastic controversy of the eighth century. Many in the Church fought over the appropriateness of icons used in Christian worship. The debate was hostile to say the least. The images themselves were being worshiped as gods, and this was a big problem to the iconoclasts. Earlier Christians did not decorate church buildings with any kind of art. (Early Christianity was very similar to Islam in that regard.) But over time, icons began to decorate Christian worship spaces. This became a strong point of contention. The matter was resolved by the seventh Ecumenical Council held in Nicea but difficulties continued until the monk Methodios became the patriarch of Constantinople, and formally accepted the role of icons in worship.
This issue, and many others, found there resolution here in Constantinople. Constantinople was really the center of the Church for centuries. When Constantine converted to Christianity, he was just developing Constantinople as the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. This made Constantinople politically important, and strengthened its religious importance to Christians. None of the early Church councils were ever held anywhere near Rome. They were all held here in modern day Turkey. Living in America, I’ve always thought of Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, and Ephesus as places that were just around the corner from one another. They are not. Being here in Turkey, it is clear that this is where the early church had its infancy, not Jerusalem, not Rome. Constantine moved politics here, but for Christianity, this was already the center of Christian life.
The church building that is the best representation of Christianity in Constantinople is Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom. It is a massive building. It seems to dwarf anything that I have seen so far. If you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer, you can view my pictorial of Hagia Sophia by clicking here.
The only challenge to appreciating Hagia Sophia is that it is now a mosque. Really, it is a museum, which has been modified to show both the nature of the space when it served as Christian church, and its nature as a mosque. As a church, it was the pride of the Byzantine Empire. However, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II converted the church to a mosque within days of his victory. To make the building suitable for Islamic worship, he had all the crosses torn down, and covered up all of the images, first with drapes, and later with plaster.
During the first part of the twentieth century, these plaster coverings were uncovered, sometimes by merely falling from one of many earthquakes. The uncovering revealed the rich history of iconic mosaics present in Hagia Sophia from the Byzantine era. Permission was sought to restore certain elements of the Christian church, while maintaining a greater portion of the Islamic.
The result is extremely unique. A mosaic of Mary and Jesus decorate the central nave while the Arabic words “Allah” and “Mohhamed” flank the sanctuary space. Both traditions are ornate. One uses images of people, and the other does not. Both come from traditions which specifically rejected the ornate superficialities found in the religious traditions they reformed. Both beg the question, “Is this what the founder wanted?” It is majestic, and inspires awe, but does it tell us more about our founder, or about ourselves?
And why do I keep coming back to these kinds of questions? Why have I dedicated a year of visiting churches, only to question the nature of the churches I visit? I do so because I need to be aware. I am seeking to be aware of the dynamic that exists between the founder of a religious tradition (Jesus/Mohammed) and their disciples who interpreted, and reinterpreted, and then reinterpreted again, the teachings of the founder. It also helps me to be aware that what we are doing now as Church, is reinterpreting the message of Jesus, for our own time.
With awareness comes the liberty to find one’s voice in the conversation that exists between God and humanity throughout history. With awareness comes recognition and respect for the multiple manifestations of God’s covenant of love with us. It is very rarely this or that, but usually this and that. You can find God by stripping away all the art. You can find God by putting the art back up. You can find God by stripping away the art you just put up. Sometimes you can say you are doing one thing, do the complete opposite, and still find God. It’s fantastic!
And that is why I found Constantinople and Hagia Sophia so wonderful. With all of its history, you can see so many things going on all at once. That’s why I want to write that play. It is fun to see a comedy of errors in which huge mistakes are made by nincompoops who can’t follow instructions. We’ve all experienced them, which is why one of my favorite prayers goes, “Oh Lord, please save me… from your followers!”But what is so great, is that God does. Even when we get it wrong, God gets our wrongness right. It should give us a sigh of relief, and lead us to deep reverence, for the possibility of God’s love, already within our midst.