“Religion is a great force: the only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don’t understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours.” – George Bernard Shaw
I was discussing with another teacher about the projects her students were doing. For their exit project, her students were doing biographies of people that were a force for changing history–an admirable topic, to be sure. Many chose typical but important people, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the like. Some were less than serious. I’m still at a loss as to how Chris Brown was a shaper of history–he certainly re-shaped Rihanna’s face, the bum.
Yet one girl strived to outdo all the others, picking the one guy that everyone can either love or hate, the one dude that probably caused both the most joy and the most misery in the Western world. Yeshua Bin-Yusuf, or to us non-Aramaic speakers, Jesus of Nazareth. Yeah, that guy.
This girl had recently been taking catechism classes for her confirmation, so I can understand her enthusiasm for Jesus. The miracles, the stories he told, his way with crowds–how can you not love the guy. Then came the following: “Did you know that Jesus had a wife?” Apparently, either Dan Brown was teaching her catechism class or she caught a late viewing of The DaVinci Code on her TV. In fact, it was a Discovery Channel special that piqued her interest.
She then became confused when she cross-referenced some of the particulars of our cultural tradition with the Bible. Where do they mention Christmas? Why is there no date? What about Easter? How come it doesn’t say to not eat meat on a Friday? Granted, this was an 11 year old girl, so she had every right to be confused…and excited. She couldn’t wait to get started.
I have deep reservations about this. I don’t want to crush her enthusiasm, but Jesus is a complex guy to cover in a public school. The line between reporting and prostyletizing is razor thin. Plus, there’s that pesky First Amendment to worry about…oh, this would all be much easier if we were all Puritans feeling guilty about whistling on the Sabbath. There are a number of non-Christians in the school, and their parents would be none too pleased about Big J crashing the secular party.
On top of all that, Jesus is both “too big” a topic with “too small” a base of source material. Can anyone really describe Jesus’ impact on our world in one book, let alone a sheet of paper? His teachings formed the basis, both good and bad, of Western civilization as we know it. More people died in his name than anyone else. His followers number in the billions, and even they can’t agree on who gets the big guy’s seal of approval–the Catholics were first on the block, but the Lutherans and Calvinists thought the Papists “got soft” and claimed they were his true representatives. This has morphed into denominations too varied and numerous to count. Even the Mormons claim the guy, although I wonder if they got their dogma from the Bible or from Joseph Smith smoking too many bricks of opium in his hookah.
If we were to study Jesus as a historical figure, which he is, there is a grand total of one, count ’em, one secular research source that is even close to Jesus’ time period. The author wasn’t exactly unbiased, either. Yosef Ben-Matityahu was a military leader in the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 AD against the Roman Empire. He was cornered in a cave, and convinced his fellow rebels they should draw lots to kill each other since suicide was a Jewish no-no. Somehow, he was the last one standing (surprise, surprise) and nonchalantly bargained for his life with his Roman conquerors, who then took him to Rome and gave him the Emperor’s Package (and not the Ceasers Palace kind, either). Now re-christened Flavius Josephus, he proceeded to write two of the most important historical texts of the period: The Jewish War (75 AD) and The Antiquities of the Jews (94). Jesus is mentioned in the first work, as well as his early followers. However, remember that this is a guy that went to war with the Romans, was captured by the Romans, had his life spared, and was granted Roman citizenship with a pension. Josephus was not going to crap where he ate, so don’t count on a completely fair view of Jesus (“And so he was crucified, but he probably had it coming. A guy like that is just asking for it.”)
Historical research in education, particularly for students, has centered more and more on the use of primary source materials. This is great for U.S. history, for World War II and the civil rights movement, but ancient history is a lot trickier. The Bible is no help; most of it was written well after the fact, and all the Evangelists had an agenda: some wanted to tell the straight story, some wanted to brown-nose the Man Upstairs (Apostle John, I’m looking in your direction). Roman records only have a notation that someone named Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem somewhere between 26-33 AD. And we see how Josephus has his problems. Furthermore, with the texts of Jesus’ life heavily censored by church authorities to show him in all his awesomeness, the bits about his “failings” (if any…did the thunderbolt come down yet?) were safely discarded. Nobody needed to know that at the wedding at Cana, Jesus could only create white Zinfandel, which most Jews found pedestrian at the time. Nor was it helpful to have the eyewitness accounts of the Romans who attended to his death (“He just wouldn’t stop squirming.”).
Finally, I think I would recommend that my student should choose a more modern person with a more limited scope of greatness. Jesus taught the world that all human beings had value. It’s a gigantic concept, one that an adult has trouble understanding, let alone an 11 year old. For all her enthusiasm and drive, I think its best to leave Jesus to the biblical scholars and archaeologists. Instead, maybe she should pick a person that will incur Jesus’ wrath. Like Hitler, Stalin, or Bernie Madoff. That way, at least she’s clear about his message.
Mosques, Churches, Temples: History’s Most Used (and Abused) Religious Real Estate
Cathedral of Seville, early 16th Century. The Giralda, or bell tower was once a minaret for the mosque that was there previously.
Whenever the neighbors have their friends move nearby, you know the neighborhood is changing.
In most urban (and suburban) areas, this has been a pattern for the last half century: people move in, other people move out, for various reasons. Then another group displaces the last group.
Religion has also played such a real estate game over the past few millennia.
The recent controversy over the proposed mosque near the Ground Zero site had us at the Neighborhood thinking about how religion played a role in the use of real estate. I, for one, am not convinced that the proposed mosque in that location is a good idea. There are better, less confrontational areas to erect a mosque and promote understanding (isn’t the whole project about avoiding confrontation, anyway?).
Yet this is not the first time buildings and religion has collided in controversy.
Here is a sampling of other sites around the world that have changed religious hands, sometimes multiple times. Some resorted to violence, while others simply entered a space vacated by someone else. There were many others to choose from, but these are my favorites:
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (447-431 BCE)
Like a Times Square callgirl, this old broad has had a rough life. The Parthenon was designed as a temple to the goddess Athena, the protector of the city of Athens. It replaced an earlier Parthenon that was destroyed by the Persians, and also served as the city treasury. Later, under the Byzantines, the Parthenon became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while the Ottoman Turks converted it into a mosque in the early 1460s. After a Venetian bomb exploded the powder stores inside it in 1687, and Lord Elgin made off with the choice goods in 1806, the Parthenon was better used as a backdrop for every Greek diner from Astoria to Chicago.
The Temple Mount [Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Western Wall], Jerusalem, Israel (957 BCE-692 CE)
Sure, people fought over the Parthenon, but never was the fight as fierce as for the Temple Mount. According to Biblical scholarship (since archaeological digs are forbidden on the mount), the first Temple of Solomon rose at that sight around the mid 900s BCE. It was subsequently destroyed by the Babylonians, and then rebuilt by the Persians in the early 500s BCE. Herod the Great expanded the Temple Mount in 19 BCE, only to have it destroyed by the Romans after the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. A temple to Jupiter arose from the site in the 130s BCE, starting another Jewish revolt and banning Jews from the city (are you getting all this?). In 325 CE a Catholic church arose on the mount, followed by more churches, and culminating in the building of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque by the Umayyad caliphs in the late 600s-early 700s. Three religions considered the place sacred, and the true ownership and usage rights are still in dispute.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (532-537 CE)
You got to give Kemal Ataturk credit here. The first president of the secular Republic of Turkey needed to do something with a building that charged emotions among Christians and Muslims. The building was created by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I and served as the eastern headquarters of Christendom, later the headquarters of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Following the Ottoman conquest of 1453, Mehmed II had Hagia Sophia converted to a mosque, adding minarets, a mihrab, a minbar and also covering up or removing the more Christian aspects of the place. In 1935, Ataturk decided everybody can use it—and nobody can use it, either. He had the place restored and converted to a museum, and no religious group can use it as a place of worship. Since Ataturk controlled the voting bloc that had machine guns, his edict settled the matter.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba [Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption] Cordoba, Spain (784-987)
I had the pleasure of visiting the Great Mosque, or Mezquita as its known in Spanish, and it is truly a wonder—even if the Spanish managed to shoe-horn a Renaissance chapel smack-dab in the middle of the thing. Originally a Visigothic church stood on the site where Emir Abd al-Rahman I decided to build a grand mosque. Using the original church as a template, the mosque was enlarged and decorated over the centuries. It became the cultural, political, social and economic center of Muslim Spain, known as Al-Andalus (today’s Andalusia). When the Christian kings of Castile took it back in the mid 1200’s, the Mosque became a church again. It’s amazing how much of the original Islamic structure was relatively untouched; that is, until you find the gleaming golden Catholic interior chapel. Even I find it a little garish.
Synagogues of Spain: El Transito, Toledo and Old Main Synagogue, Segovia (1300s-1492)
The Catholic Reconquest of Spain (1200s-1492) ended the thriving Muslim culture in Al-Andalus. It also shattered the other thriving minority culture in Spain: Jews. There had been Jews in Spain since the Roman period, and they had risen to high places in politics and business. Yet with the Reconquista, and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition meant to homogenize Spanish society under one church, the Jews were now a pariah and a threat. Both the Synagogue of El Transito and the Old Maine Synagogue in Segovia defied Christian laws meant to keep Jewish houses of worship small and unadorned. In fact, both were grand and highly ornate: in the style of the people that tolerated them the most, the Muslim Moors. After the Edict of Expulsion in 1492, both became churches or parts of Catholic institutions, although now El Transito is a museum documenting the history of Toledo’s Jewish community.
Babri Mosque, Ayodhya, India (1527-1992)
In 1992, a mob of 150,000 rioters, mostly Hindus, settled a centuries-old debate by destroying a mosque that was built over 400 years earlier. In 1527, Babur I, first Mughal emperor of India, built this mosque on the site of an earlier Hindu temple. According to Hindu mythology, the area around the Babri Mosque was the birthplace of the god Rama—even Babur acknowledged this in naming the mosque Masjid-i Janmasthan, or Mosque of the Birthplace. By the 1980s, a new militant Hindu nationalist movement had agitated to purge the area of Muslim influences, culminating in the 1992 riot. A commission released a report in 2009 that blames Hindu nationalists and members of the Indian government for the demolition of the mosque. It didn’t settle matters: the debate over the mosque’s history and significance, known as the Ayodhya debate, rages today.
Brick Lane Mosque, London, England, UK (1743)
All those other stories were so morbid, so let’s end on a good note. In London, particularly in the working-class East End, communities have come and gone over centuries, and 59 Brick Lane in the Spitalfields neighborhood of east London has seen them all. It began as a Protestant chapel for French Huguenots, and it serviced this French exile community for over 60 years. In 1809, it became a Wesleyan chapel for a group ministering to London’s Jewish community. This didn’t last long, as it became a regular Methodist church in 1819. Russian and Eastern European Jews, funny enough, did take over the building in the late 19th century, becoming the “”Machzike Adass” or “Spitalfields Great Synagogue.” As these Jews migrated to north London, the building was eventually abandoned in the mid 20th century. In the 1970s, an influx of immigrants from Bangladesh settled in Spitalfields to find work in factories or textile mills. The now-empty 59 Brick Lane then became the Brick Lane Mosque in 1976, which stills serves the Bangladeshi community of east London today.
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