October 31, 2010

ABE'S TROUBLESOME GET:

Abraham’s Progeny, and Their Texts (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 10/21/10, NY Times)

The sweep of the new exhibition at the New York Public Library — “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam” — is stunning. It stretches from a Bible found in a monastery in coastal Brittany that was sacked by the Vikings in the year 917, to a 1904 lithograph showing the original Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. It encompasses both an elaborately decorated book of 20th-century Coptic Christian readings and a modest 19th-century printing of the Gospels in the African language Grebo. There are Korans, with pages that shimmer with gold leaf and elegant calligraphy, and a 13th-century Pentateuch from Jerusalem, written in script used by Samaritans who traced their origins to the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel.

The library’s Gutenberg Bible is here, as well as its 1611 King James translation. The first Koran published in English is shown, from 1649, along with fantastical images from 16th-century Turkish and Persian manuscripts in which Muhammad is pictured with other prophets, his face a blank white space in obeisance to the prohibition against his portrait.

Out of many, one. That could well be the motto of this ambitious exhibition. It focuses on “the three Abrahamic religions” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — each of which takes as a forebear an “itinerant herdsman” of the Middle East, Abraham, who affirmed belief in a single God. As the show puts it, Abraham rejected “the religions of antiquity with their plethora of gods, each imbued with a particular attribute, purpose and power,” replacing the many with the one.

The Abrahamic religions share other characteristics as well. Each believes that God has made himself known to his prophets through acts of revelation. And such revelations shape groups of believers by being incorporated in canonical written texts: the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Gospels, the Islamic Koran.

Though the exhibition does not point this out, the connection between monotheism and such texts is no accident. Once multiple divinities are discarded, along with their rivalries and conflicting powers, religion is concerned with just two poles: the human and the divine. Religious events take place not on Mount Olympus or in some imagined godly castle, but in the earthly realm. Religious history becomes fully part of human history. And the telling of that history, along with commentary and reinterpretation, becomes an aspect of the religion itself. These faiths are historical faiths. [...]

These are not subtle disputes, and the consequences were far from ecumenical, particularly when successor religions sought to spread their beliefs through conquest and conversion. And while the three share many traits — these are not primarily meditative or contemplative religions, after all, and they are indeed historical faiths, concerned with action, even with mission — their commonalities also lead to profound contrasts. For two millenniums, Judaism, tied to a particular people, was the least outwardly directed, but all three religions saw themselves as shaping world history. Each one also imagined a distinctive role for believers within it. And here the three are quite diverse indeed.

This is, of course, beyond the scope of this show. But understanding this would mean examining the three faiths more closely for their differences.


Posted by Orrin Judd at October 31, 2010 5:57 AM
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