When you take a tour of the Seven Churches of the Book of Revelation, what you will see are ruins. The ruins of the churches are nice, but the ruins you see are not actually the churches to which St. John wrote. They are the ruins of Byzantine churches built during the sixth and seventh centuries, half of a millennia after St. John wrote to the Seven Churches of the Book of Revelation.
There are however decent remains of the Greco-Roman religious and government structures that existed when St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. These remains are part of structures that are Roman, Greek, or sometimes both. The ruins I visited today were those of Pergamum. It is a city on hill complete with Greek theater and all. Watch out for the snakes though, they are really big. (The wild ones, not ones in a zoo.)
As I view these ruins, I have a keener insight into the system of rule imposed by the Greeks. First of all, they had the polytheistic cults which required citizen to make sacrifices, usually of money. This money then was used by the government for the administration of the political system. What was unique to the Greeks and Romans, in terms of a history of religion, is that they created anthropomorphic gods. The gods were in the form of human beings. Sooner or later, the emperors got a great idea. “Instead of building these temples with anthropomorphic images, in which the people are starting to doubt, why not fill the temples with images of… ME. Worship… ME. Make statues of… ME. They’ll believe… ME because I can show them my might through victory.” It was actually an ingenious way to reinforce control and stability.
In modern times we might call this “branding.” Branding is really the success of McDonalds, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola. Everywhere I have gone in the world, I can find these brands. To some extent, it is comforting, because when I see these brands, I know what to expect.
What makes an emperor, or even a president successful is a similar kind of branding. If you tear down the statue of Zeus, and put one up of Caesar, it reinforces the dominance of the leader and assures a citizen what they can expect when they enter the city. The idea is actually quite brilliant. As I see temple after temple dedicated to emperor after emperor, all I can imagine is that these were the real Turkish Idols that Jews, Christians, and Muslims rejected when they refused to decorate their sanctuaries with images. Their rejection of political deification and branding was de facto a rejection of the government and the stability of the society.
Seeing this phenomenon causes me to recollect my own culture. I went to college in Washington D.C. This is a city in which we have constructed many “memorials,” which look a lot like Greco-roman temples. In these “memorials” we place large statues of MEN, whom we “remember.” However, from a functional point of view, what is to say that we don’t idolize them as if they were Gods? What is the substantial difference between a Greek temple and an American memorial? We say that we don’t worship the Americans presidents, but I really wonder.
I am also speaking at a time when image is everything. To win a presidential election, you need your face painted on every billboard, every newspaper, and every television program. You need to be made into a god, an idol. It is this kind image based propaganda that the Greco-Roman emperors first perfected. They turned themselves into idols. The Jews and Christians rejected this, but today, we accept it and even expect it. In America, one of our top ranking television programs is AMERICAN IDOL, but don’t tell the 90% or Americans who are Jewish or Christian that this is a direct violation of the first commandment. It might make us feel guilty… or vote more often.
I bring this issue up for awareness. Nothing more. I want us to be aware of what is happening. The techniques used by politicians and advertisers today are the same techniques used by the propagators of the Greek and Roman empires centuries ago. We easily criticize the Greeks, but fail to see the faults and limitations of our own society.
I also bring this issue up because it makes us aware of the limitations of Christian worship. Christianity dealt with the Iconoclast controversy in 787 AD during the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. The resolution of the council led to the acceptance of the use of images in Christian worship space. Islam, overall, remains steadfast in its rejection of images of any kind. When you enter a Christian space of worship, and a Muslim space, the difference becomes evident.
I don’t think that either religion has it right, or wrong. Both the absence of images and the presence of images in a worship space need to be accompanied by explicit instruction as to what choice has been made and why it is important for that space. If we are not aware of what is going on, it is easy to fall victim to the domination of someone else’s thinking. That is what makes McDonalds, Starbucks, and Coca-cola successful. That is why the Turkish Idols found in these Greco-Roman ruins worked so well. They forced an image upon the spectator that the spectator cannot change. Without being conscious of the limitation, it is accepted as the norm. The propagation of image control leads to mind control, and the masses never stop to think about the implications. It affects our religious traditions in the same way it affects our politics. Be aware. That’s all I’m seeking.
Awareness brings freedom.