In the middle of the Easter season, my hymnophile colleague at World Library Publications, Tom Strickland, sent us the Easter hymn “He Is Risen,” tune by Felix Mendelssohn. The quirky anomaly of pairing of this text with this music is that the melody originated as the chorus “Baal, we cry to thee” (Baal erhöre uns—Baal hear us, in the original German) in Mendelssohn’s Oratorio “Elijah.” In the oratorio, it is part of the hyperbole-laden contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal to call down fire from heaven upon a sacrificial bullock. (I Kings 18.)
Having recently returned from a vacation to southern Spain, I found myself wondering if this hymn might not be a musical version of something I’d seen various places there. When you travel there, you encounter many artifacts of the region’s fascinating history as simultaneous host to the world’s three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There are any number of places where mosques were built on top of synagogues or churches built on top of mosques, or other structures built on top of Roman temples, or some combination thereof. Largely these were built after some sort of infiltration or (more often) armed conquest. These structures were, in a way, sacraments of the conquering religion’s victories—the “my god can beat up your god” mindset in brick and mortar. Indeed, if you know the legend of the battle of Daroca, you know it was a conquest in which the actual sacrament—the Eucharist—was understood as a weapon.
Though there is certainly religiously-motivated war and violence still going on in our world, the era of this type of post-conquest building of sacred structures appears mostly to have passed. It seems to me, however, that the essential underlying dynamic is still very much in operation. There are still adversarial gods at work, though in ways that are often much more covert. This can make their assault more dangerous than that of an invading army or hundreds of pagan priests, as we might even find ourselves unwittingly cooperating with or accommodating them.
Perhaps the most readily available example of this covert conquest would be the degree to which commerce has conquered Christmas. Commerce, in and of itself, is a good and essential thing for societies and communities to have. But slowly, over the course of time, as a society our preparation for (a.k.a. Advent) and the celebrations of the mystery of God Incarnate have been given smaller and smaller portions of our energies, and sometimes merely serve as a means to justify commercial behaviors—we buy each other flat-screen TVs, because the magi. “Joy to the World” may be played in the mall for six-ten weeks, but it is doubtful that its underlying magnum mysterium is the focus for anyone who is even cognizant that it is there, one more swatch of sonic wallpaper. To a lesser—though growing—degree, the Lord’s Day has also been succumbing to commerce and (maybe to a lesser extent) organized sports. Again, organized sports, like commerce, isn’t truly bad in and of itself, though I’m not sure that some of its underlying value systems—team allegiance and winning are more important than anything—transfer all that well to other aspects of our lives. In terms of the Lord’s day, I don’t know that we can convincingly state that a one-hour religious observance—often sandwiched in-between an array of other activities, frequently with an eye toward convenience—constitutes “keeping” the day for the Lord.
Elijah bested the prophets of Baal. Unlike Baal, YHWH sent fire down upon Elijah’s (drenched with water, no less) bullock in victory—then, to seal the deal, Elijah had all 450 prophets of Baal slaughtered. A very visible and snazzy sign underscoring that YHWH clobbered Baal. Of course, this scripture story (and many others in the Hebrew scriptures) is completely grounded in the ancient mythic worldview of the cultures that surrounded Israel, in which competing deities’ battles were manifested in human battles. Centuries later, this mindset was still in place on the Iberian peninsula, as the followers of “one” God still, somehow, understood their competing versions of the one deity to be battling one another. It could be argued that we still find traces of this mindset with us today.
A keen insight or perspective we can glean from the Hebrew scriptures is that though we claim belief in one God, there are still other gods lurking about. We may not truly comprehend them as gods, but we certainly are capable of allowing them to function as deities in our lives—sometimes unwittingly, sometimes only over the course of time. This is why the Hebrew scriptures have so many precautions against idols. Unfortunately, the word “idol” in our surrounding culture has assumed a positive connotation, so we really don’t grasp that an idol is anything we place between ourselves and God, or anything with which we replace God. But there are plenty of objects, attitudes, and behaviors both in church culture and the surrounding culture ready to receive our permission to beat up our God, at least in our own lives. The temples that get placed on top of the former temple may not be of brick and mortar, but they are very, very real. This may not occur with the visibility or pizzazz of an invading army or a fiery altar—as a matter of fact, a quiet and gradual succumbing seems to be more the order of our day.
As I looked at those centuries-old structures in Spain, built by religious folk whose gods had beaten another’s, I thought of the increasing number of razed or re-purposed church buildings in the U.S. and found myself wondering what might or might not be left of current structures in the year 2500. Who will be viewed as the conquered or conqueror? I don’t pretend to be a savvy prognosticator, but I do believe that history is beginning to be written…today.