From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 13, Year 1 (Pentecost 10, 2015)
Acts 19:18-19 ~ Many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.
The author of Acts obviously approves of the burning of “fifty thousand silver coins” worth of books. I cringe. In this brief passage, I hear the precursor not only of the burning of banned books throughout European and North American Christian history, I hear the stirrings of the destruction of Buddhist antiquities by the Taliban and of ancient Assyrian sculptures by ISIS. I hear the early rumblings of the gathering storms of religious purity, suppression of differing viewpoints, and the murder of those who are different.
Some years ago, I was teaching an adult education class at a church in another diocese at the time of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church held in Phoenix, Arizona (July 1991). As part of the opening ceremonies of that convention, a group of Native American “smudgers” had blessed the worship space in a ritual that involves the burning of aromatic herbs and the offering of the smoke; the smudgers who participated were active members of the Episcopal Church. A participant in my adult ed class was outraged; she likened the event to one purposefully planting a noxious weed into a garden, condemning the Native American tradition as “pagan” and “satanic.” (I should note that the congregation where the course was offered was an Anglo-Catholic parish which made abundant use of incense, so I don’t think the herbal smoke, in and of itself, was the issue for this class member.)
I wondered then and I wonder now how she feels about Christmas trees, Advent wreaths, Easter eggs, and the various other pre-Christian and “pagan” practices the church has incorporated into its ritual and popular practices. (Smudging has become rather a common, though not widespread, practice in the Episcopal Church, by the way. It was incorporated into the investiture ceremony of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006, and her successor as Bishop of Nevada, the Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards welcomed smudgers at his consecration; in both cases, the smudgers were active members of Nevada Native American congregations.)
We have much to learn from the rituals, ceremonies, and ritual practices of others. To the extent they are not diametrically opposed to the truths of our faith, they can enrich our spirituality. The Roman Catholic theologian Raimon Panikkar (who is of both Spanish and [east] Indian ancestry) once suggested that if Christ is the fulfillment of earlier scripture then, as the Hebrew Scriptures are read in churches in the west, perhaps the Vedas or other ancient texts should be read in the churches of India and the east. Of his own personal pilgrimage to India he wrote, “I left Europe as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.” For such sentiments, Panikkar was expelled from the Opus Dei community and disciplined by the Vatican. I, however, find them intriguing.
My student’s outrage and Panikkar’s ecclesiastical discipline are both direct descendants of the book burning recorded in Acts. I wonder what was lost when those “fifty thousand silver coins” worth of books were burned.