Would You Step on Jesus?

Would You Step on Jesus? April 30, 2013

My friend and fellow Minnesotan, Jay Bakker, is known to throw his Bible to the ground during his talks, in order to break his audiences of their bibliolatry. At first blush, it seems like an act of sacrilege, but his point is that the Bible is ink on a page, whereas the Word of God is something more than that.

The always insightful Stanley Fish draws our attention to a class at Florida Atlantic University, in which students were asked to write the name “Jesus” on a peace of paper and then step on it. The governor of Florida was horrified, as were many others. But, as Fish reports, they got the story wrong. The professor is a Christian, and the exercise had a point:

So there was no intention either to cause offense or display disrespect for Christianity; rather, the intention was to jump-start discussion by causing students to realize, in an immediate and visceral way, how charged is the relationship they have with iconic and talismanic symbols. I can imagine that some of the students who hesitated and/or declined were neither Christian nor religious, but felt a vague uneasiness at being asked to step on a revered name, even if they themselves did not revere it. I am not a Christian yet I felt vaguely uneasy when I heard about the incident, and I’ve been trying to dress up and dignify my uneasiness with a legal/philosophical analysis of it.

Fish goes on to compare it with a couple other instances in higher education. And he ultimately comes to the conclusion that, while asking students to examine their “deepest commitments and anxieties” is a worthy goal in undergraduate education, asking students to perform an exercise like this in front of their fellow students is not the best pedagogical method. Fish concludes,

The unwillingness of the complaining student at F.A.U. was deeper; he was not being asked to pretend to step on Jesus’ name; he was being asked to do it. And he was not role-playing, as he might have been had he been invited to participate in the thought experiment I described earlier or told to write a paper titled “How I Would React If I Were Asked to Perform an Action Inimical to My Values.” He could do either of those things and still reserve for himself a private space into which the pedagogical reach had not intruded. But in Poole’s class, he was put in a position where a confrontation with his innermost being could not be avoided; no room to hide.

Is that what education is about? I know that many think so, but I tend to think that education is more formally deliberative, more a matter of contemplating ideas and possible courses of action than of implementing ideas and actually taking action.

I’ve wondered some of these very things as I have taught — for the first time — a semester-long course on the New Testament — a text that I consider sacred — to undergrads at a state university. Some come with commitments to that text; others, like the student I mentioned yesterday, are committed atheists. Others are in between. Finding a pedagogy that is both respectful and challenging has been tricky.

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  • Sarah

    Hmmm. I wouldn’t step on a picture of a friend who embodied good to me, let alone Jesus. The repositioning act for me isn’t diminishing the role of Jesus or the Bible, it’s refusing to accept rigid execution of religious ideas surrounding them that can prevent us from living the heart of their message.

    For the collegiate me, the question would’ve worked the same end (without the hint at slighting deeply held beliefs) by asking me to step on the names or images of the power holders who’ve typically wielded the Bible and Jesus for their own purposes.

    But if a professor verbally posed this example in class, I can see it yielding a healthy discussion.

    • Simon

      I agree. This isn’t about forcing a student to “take action,” this professor is abusing his power. If someone said, “Write your mother’s name on a piece of paper. Now step on it.” or “Take the name written on your neighbor’s paper. Step on their mother.” Is the paper really a talisman? He would not have demonstrated how sacred your neighbor’s mother’s name is.

      Both are offensive. But what does it demonstrate? Not that the paper or the name of the mother is a magic talisman.

      The only thing demonstrated is that the professor is being a self-aggrandizing boob (and probably just wants to see his students squirm and feel detatched and superior). He should co-teach a class with the other crazy FAU prof. (The one who denies that Sandy Hook and Boston Massacres took place. No joke. What is going on at FAU?) http://fxn.ws/18aYD5v

      The class could be, “How to be Offensive and Accomplish Nothing” (probably a 100 level class), or perhaps just a faculty in-service workshop.

  • Josh Spencer

    Does anyone else find this eerily reminiscent of certain scenes from ‘That Hideous Strength’?

  • Drew Sumrall

    As a society we already step on Jesus, almost daily . . . if Christ is indeed the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the homeless etc. . . . refusing to stand with the oppressed (more than simply ‘in spirit’) only supports the system that oppresses them.

  • I was raised in a home that revered the physical Bible to the extent that nothing was allowed to be placed on top of one, such as another book. That is going too far. However, out of respect I would not step on a Bible, Quran, or Bhagavad Gita just because someone asked me to. Same with pictures of Jesus, Muhammad, or Vishnu.
    If I were threatened with harm, though, I would burn them all because they are just paper; the essence of the book is not affected by physical destruction.

  • Tony, remember the crazy nut Bob Larsen??
    For kicks a few years ago my buddy and I went to one of his public exorcisms when he was in the Detroit area……it took everything in me not to fall on the floor laughing as he attempted to ‘cast out a demon’ by taking his bible and hitting the person on the head with it!

    He told the crowd, “This is the sword of the spirit and with the sword I smite the demon!!!”….lmao

    he must of hit the poor kid at least a dozen times with the book…..all because the kid had the demon of pornography lol….methinks there must be a lot of those demons around according to old Bobby….

    well, I just mention the story because it connects with your post in that evangelicals place a whole lot of importance on icon’s like ‘the name of jesus written on a paper’ or ‘an English translation of the bible’ and while I don’t have any problem with iconography at all….its humorous that these are the same people who bash the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church

  • Richard H

    On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand?

  • Craig

    It is indeed a challenge to present the New Testament as both sacred and a proper object of ordinary, academic criticism. It’d be so much easier if scholarship tended to reveal and vindicate the sacred value of the text. But instead it takes creative ingenuity, persistent obfuscation, or an obstinate determination of faith merely to convince oneself that there is room to still maintain the sacredness of this text.

    My advice: step over it and move on.

  • Shawn Smucker

    This reminds me of “Silence” by Shisaku Endo. Have you read it? It’s a novel about 17th century Portuguese missionaries to Japan. Christianity was illegal. If the govt believed you were a Christian, they’d ask you to step on a fumie – an image of the Virgin and child, or of Christ on the cross. If you refused to step on it, you would be tortured until you agreed to do so. Many who refused were hung upside down by their feet and had small slits cut behind their ears to relieve the blood pressure. After two or three days, they eventually drowned from the blood trickling into their nose.

    Sometimes, when priests were caught, they were told that if they simply stepped on the fumie, all the Christians currently being tortured in their prison would be released. While reading the book I found myself thinking, “Just step on the stupid picture!” But it seems in those circumstances, stepping on the image was the same thing as saying, “I’m not a Christian and I will have nothing to do with Christ.” In today’s classroom setting it seems that stepping on a picture of Jesus could be seen as being extremely disrespectful or inappropriate, but I don’t think we see it as the equivalent to apostatizing.

  • CurtisMSP

    Interesting question. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but you’ve touched on one of the oldest and deepest controversies in the Christian church. That controversy centers around whether Jesus is really, physically present during the sacrament of Communion.

    You see, many Christians would feel discomfort in stepping on a symbol of Jesus, like his name or picture. We may not want to do it, but we wouldn’t consider it the most terrible thing to do.

    On the other hand, if Jesus were actually here, in the body, I doubt anyone would physically step on him, and grind his flesh into the ground. Even an atheist would consider this an immoral thing to do.

    That is the debate around Communion. Some churches teach Jesus is really present during the communion, in the bread and the wine. Catholics and Lutherans, most notably. So these churches would treat the bread and wine with extra care, and would never step on either if it were dropped on the ground. Most other Christians would think a dropped crumb of communion bread is no big deal, and would probably walk on it with no hesitation.

    This is a very interesting topic for discussion, about when an icon crosses a line and becomes an idol, and offers a glimpse into one of the earliest and greatest church controversies. Awareness of these variations in belief can make us much more respectful and reverent toward the beliefs of others.

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