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Statue limitations

James Cary

You may not have a favourite Biblical pagan deity. I do. It's Dagon. He crops up at various points in the Old Testament, managing to be part of one of the finest pieces of slapstick ever to involve an inert stone statue. In 1 Samuel 5, the Philistine captured Ark of the Covenant and stored it in a temple of Dagon overnight. It might have been a warehousing issue, or, more likely, a powerplay to show that Dagon had defeated Yahweh. Or so it seemed. The next morning, the priests of Dagon discovered the statue of their god had toppled over and was prostrate in front of Yahweh's Ark. The statue was put back, but it happened again the next night, except somehow, the head and hands had broken off. Funny. Given the comedy rule of three, I've always wondered what would have happened if they'd repaired the statue and tried it again. They probably would have woken up to find the Ark in a crater where the temple had once been. The Bible takes idols very seriously. The expectation is that you will not see God at work in your life, or your community, while idols remain in your midst. The startled Gideon's first mission was not the defeat of the Midianites, but his father's altar to Baal and pole of Asherah. This wasn't a warm up, like one of those easy initial training-type levels you get on first-person-shooters like Call of Duty. The LORD gives orders like this because there's no point fighting the enemy without until the enemy within has been destroyed. And not just partially destroyed. Or largely defeated. Completely extinguished from existence. There remains a perception that in the New Testament, everything is much more civilised and less prone to destruction. And of course Jesus would never condone violence or anything so primitive. Yet Jesus got physical in the Temple. He didn't denounce the money lenders. He got out a whip and chased them out. And he warned the entire Temple would be destroyed. And within a generation, it was. Utterly. For many of us, our Christian heritage embraced iconoclasm. The Reformation was not without statue- smashing and whitewashing. For many of us, this is an uncomfortable legacy. We wince when we watch TV historians wander round medieval churches, moaning that the walls used to be emblazoned with colour and alcoves filled with stunning statues of saints. In the world of cultural historians, Protestants are undoubtedly The Bad Guys. For those of us who are glad to remain in the Reformed or Evangelical traditions, we have a long list of objects and practices that were banned, smashed, covered up or frowned upon. But we should at least comprehend the destruction of historical and religious artefacts by Islamists, most prominently the Taliban's 2001 dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan statues dating back to the 6th Century. More recently ISIS have been shown ransacking museums and sites of historical significance. To the secular west, men in scarves turning a pile of ancient rubble into a pile of slightly finer rubble seems, at best, deranged. At worst, it is systematic cultural vandalism - something for which there can be no rational explanation or excuse. The iconoclasts understand that silent statues to gods that don't exist still have an aura about them. The statue of Dagon in the Philistine Temple would have been awe-inspiring. Until it met real power. If discovered today, that statue of Dagon would be treated as significant and sacred in its own way. Even the hard-hearted, western atheist would fall at its feet and worship, by sending news crews, experts and UN delegates to promote, explain and honour the statue. The Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar outlined why he ordered the destruction of the ancient monument. 'Some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings - the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction.' Now who's the crazy one? An Ark of the Covenant may have made men do strange things, but so does an ancient statue of Buddha, Dagon or the Virgin Mary. Maybe my spiritual forefathers had it right: iconoclasm is more than it's cracked up to be.