I admit the title of this post sounds funny, but let me go forward on this. Again, I am using the post to think more than give answers.
While I was briefly visiting Malaysia, I saw the report of a “desecration” of a Muslim prayer room (surau) by a Buddhist group in a Malaysian resort. Of course, Muslims are allowed to pray in “non-sacred” places, although a prayer mat/rug appears to provide a sacredness anywhere of sorts (I do have to admit some ignorance of the details in this area). It is also true that Muslims often use Interfaith prayer rooms. However, at least in Johor Malaysia (again not sure about other countries), a surau is considered “sacred” and a person who allows a different religion to use it can be arrested– and the view is that, in this particular case at least, the prayer room must be destroyed since it can never be made sacred again.
The idea of sacredness in the above story interests me.
First, it interests me the fact that at least some Muslim leaders seem to feel that there is no redemption or re-sanctification for their space. Why would that be? I have been in a Mosque, in their surau, during prayers. The imam who invited me did not feel that I desecrated the place (although I did not practice religious rites of any sort there). I certainly have known of Christians going to mosques and praying to (the Triune) God as others prayer to their God. As far as I know, no mosque has ever been torn down because of that. I come across Christians (and even more commonly other groups like “Jehovah’s Witnesses”) who also seem to accept that some things can’t be redeemed. Every Christmas there are posts arguing that because the date chosen centuries ago to celebrate the birth of Jesus aligns with an ancient no-longer-commonly practiced pagan festival, Christmas is defiled… irredeemable. I believe redeeming culture is something God does all the time, and we should be very cautious in suggesting that God is unable or unwilling to redeem dates, times, places, and cultural activities.
Second, it interests me that I come across Christians that appear to find the Muslim understanding of sacredness appealing. Muslims culturally accept that certain things demonstrate that their primary sacred text, the Quran, is sacred. This includes where they place it. How they carry it. How they orient their body to it. They certainly have that right, and frankly they have the right to have opinions about other groups with regards to how they handle their own sacred texts. But I find it interesting that some Christians gravitate to a parallel mindset in this regard. They complain that fellow Christians can be a bit haphazard in the way they handle (physically handle) the Holy Bible, compared to the way Muslims physically handle the Quran.
To me this parallelism is inherently flawed. Christians should not look to another religion for an understanding of sacredness within a Christian context. If one group thinks that Christians don’t value the Bible because they allow the soles of their feet to face the Bible at times, should we embrace that view as well? I really don’t think so. Additionally, the Muslim understanding of the Quran is more like the Christian understanding of Jesus, and the Christian understanding of the Bible is closer to the Muslim view of Mohammed… so embracing a comparison of Holy texts may be flawed from the start.
But it does bring up the issue of what is sacred in the Christian context. I would argue that Christians more typically (and “Biblically”) hold to a functional sacredness of text rather than physical sacredness of text. The Bible is God’s love story, God’s message to man about His work in human history leading to restoration of His people to Himself. It is that message that is sacred, holy, set apart… not the paper, not the parchment, not the styrene disk that the message is placed upon. Descrecation of God’s word occurs when the message is distorted, ignored, or misused by Christians.
Sadly, that happens a lot. So maybe charges that Christians don’t treat their holy book as sacred does have some validity. But not for the reasons given.
However… now that I have said that, I am going to backpedal a bit because the Bible is not only a functionally sacred text… it is also a religious symbol. And that may have relevance as well. I will take this up in Part 2.