On Paul of Tarsus and Terry Jones

by Elizabeth Cunningham

Everyone from President Obama to Angela Jolie has made a pronouncement on Pastor Terry Jones’  proposed September 11th Quran burning—publicity Paul of Tarsus , a man who knew how to stage an event, might well have envied. Paul presided over the first public burning of books by Christians. In Ephesus, recent converts burned their scrolls on magic (presumably voluntarily) as a symbolic act of penitence as well as a literal act of destruction. Knowledge was more vulnerable in those days of hand-copied scrolls. Though the content of the Quran cannot be destroyed in this proposed fire, burning the Quran is a literal as well as symbolic assault on the Islamic faithful. In both cases, the book burnings are an aggressive assertion of the absolute supremacy of one religion through the demonizing of another.

Below is a fictional rendition (edited for brevity) of the book burning at Ephesus from my novel Bright Dark Madonna (Monkfish, 2009 used by permission). The narrative point of view belongs to Maeve, the feisty Celtic Mary Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple:

Intent on my own thoughts, I did not at first notice a larger than usual crowd gathering in the center of the square, until a hush fell, and a voice I could never forget rang out.

“Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, whether Jews or Gentiles, you are now one in the baptism of the Holy Spirit and heirs through Christ to eternal life. I, Paul, called from the womb to be apostle to Christ Jesus, adjure you to come forward with the emblems of your old reliance on sorcery and magic, from the time before you knew Christ Jesus, when you relied on charms and potions to work your own sinful will and satisfy your selfish desires.”

No one could ignore the strident, commanding voice of Paul of Tarsus. I was curious. Wrapping my widow’s shawl around me as a cloak of invisibility, I discovered that I still had my youthful talent for weaving my way through a crowd. No one paid much attention to me. They were all too intent on the public spectacle Paul was creating. And a spectacle it was. There, in front of Paul was a growing pile of scrolls, what were then called books, of all sizes and quality but every one of them costly in days when all writing was by hand. The equivalent of fifty thousand silver pieces was piled up in the square.

“Come forward and confess to your brothers and sisters in the Lord how you have used spells and practiced magic and how you now renounce all such foolishness and wickedness, having been redeemed by Christ Jesus through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

With their basic script provided for them, the new believers began to step forward and give details, sometimes lurid but mostly mundane, of their dabbling in magic and sorcery—to conceive children (or abort them as one brave woman admitted, before her husband yanked her off stage) to divine the future, to heal from sickness, to clinch business deals, to triumph over enemies, or get revenge. All the things people have always tried to control, whether through spells or appeals to gods and, yes, saints. Some people were enjoying their moment center stage while others looked bullied and shamed. Either way, there was something about the whole display that was getting on my nerves.

“What has any of this got to do with the teachings of Jesus?” A woman’s voice suddenly rang out over the din. “What does renouncing magic have to do with loving your neighbor as yourself—loving your enemy?”

To my astonishment the voice was mine and, moreover, I had stepped forward, my shawl falling away. Paul paled as he recognized me and looked for a moment as though he was going to be sick. Then he recovered and glared at me.

“Who is this woman, Apostle?” asked a man. “I do not recognize her. Is she a believer? Has she been baptized by the Holy Spirit?”

Paul was in a pickle, since he had baptized me himself, albeit against my will.

“Who has given this woman authority to speak?” people shouted. “Who has authority over her?”

“No one has authority over me!” I laughed. “I am a widow, as you see. As for who my husband was, I will tell you—”

“Aquila! Quick, a torch!” shouted Paul. “We will make a bonfire for Christ Jesus, a bonfire of our vanities, a bonfire of our unbelief. Christ Jesus is Lord. He is our head. Only he has authority. Only he can save us from death and sin.”

As he spoke, Aquila lit the pile of scrolls on fire, the flames caught and spread rapidly, the scrolls crackling impressively, and the first recorded book burning by Christians was underway. The crowd quickly lost interest in me. An outspoken, possibly crazy, widow was no competition for a holy blaze consuming costly wicked books.

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Elizabeth Cunningham September 9, 2010 - 5:35 pm

Maeve speaking: For a bit of snappy dialogue and a couple of irreverent asides that Eliz left out, read the unexpurgated version of this scene in Bright Dark Madonna.

Also a newsflash. One draft of Red-Robed Priestess, the final volume of The Maeve Chronicles, is complete. Revisions begin next week. We hope for publication in Fall, 2011.

Eliz and I are both a bit traumatized to have come to the end of my story (did I die? You'll have to read to find out.) Anyway, I can still talk and will continue to. A big mouth is stronger than death!

Unknown September 10, 2010 - 4:10 pm

Very right! Book burnings are assertions by aspiring or successful political or religious leaders of their superiority over the ideas of those being burned.

It wasn't just religious who burned books: Nazis burned books. Probably Stalinists did, too.

Book burnings were/are both symbolic (in Terry Jones's case) and, in Paul's case and among Nazis, etc. probably also an attempt to eliminate troublesome ideas.

Censorship does the same thing: you should see the list of banned books (mostly from school libraries) in the US in the last 15 years!

But Maeve's voice is so refreshing, too!

Brooke September 11, 2010 - 11:07 am

So interesting to read such a relevant to our day excerpt from your novel. And the fact that Maeve/Magdalen was actually married to the J-man, and still had no real influence. At least she had the courage to speak up. When I think about all the destruction in the name of fear and domination… Why is it that there are those of us who just get that there is room for all of us–that it's our differences that are interesting? That has been my 'burning' question ever since I can remember.

I just love Maeve, who always has such courage to speak for truth.

I can't wait to read this book, and look forward to the newly birthed installment soon. I hope you continue writing books from her perspective, even if she is no longer in the flesh. I can't imagine this Celt giving any notice at all to her transitioning out of the earthly realm. Sure she'd really just have more to say:)

Neferhuri September 27, 2010 - 12:55 am

One of my favorite movies is "Fahrenheit 451," about a world in which books are banned. People who want to save books have to memorize their favorite and walk around the woods all day, reciting as they go to anyone who will listen. If that happens again, I want to be "Magdalen Rising"–or, better still, the original title, "Daughter of the Shining Isles."

Burning books never works, but sadly, the ignorant never learn.


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