ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally

ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally February 27, 2015

The following is a guest post from Alexandra, an ex-Christian.

Recently, disturbing footage of ISIS destroying priceless historical sculptures, some from the Assyrian empire, has been released to the press.

Seeing the video reminded me of when I was an evangelical Christian, trying to figure out how to be faithful to the first two of the Ten Commandments in a modern context. In Exodus 20:1-6 they read:

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Growing up as an evangelical, I didn’t know anyone who literally made graven images for themselves that they bowed down to and worshipped, nor did I have to ward off any great temptation within myself to do so. So applying this to my life seemed fairly straightforward — at first.

And then it was explained to me that the real issue for today’s Christians is rooting out the metaphorical idols in your life. Although Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods, was published in 2009, his idea was not novel to me by then. From the introduction to the book:

To contemporary people the word idolatry conjures up pictures of primitive people bowing down before statues. The biblical book of Acts in the New Testament contains vivid descriptions of the cultures of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Each city worshipped its favorite deities and built shrines around their images for worship. (…)

Our contemporary society is not fundamentally different from these ancient ones. Each culture is dominated by its own set of idols. Each has its “priesthoods,” its totems and rituals. Each one has its shrines — whether office towers, spas and gyms, studios, or stadiums — where sacrifices must be made in order to procure the blessings of the good life and ward off disaster. What are the gods of beauty, power, money, and achievement but these same things that have assumed mythic proportions in our individual lives and in our society? We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image. We may not actually burn incense to Artemis, but when money and careers are raised to to cosmic proportions, we perform a kind of child sacrifice, neglecting family and community to achieve a higher place in business and gain more wealth and prestige.

So as a Christian, I primarily understood this commandment in the metaphorical sense and I struggled for years to root out “idols” in my life. That being said, when I was a bit older and began visiting Catholic churches as touristic landmarks, I was a bit jarred by the religious art that seemed to me to essentially function as idols being worshipped. Statues of the Virgin Mary with hundreds of votive candles at her feet. Religious art such as this one, directly depicting God the Father in the act of creation, as a man, deeply unsettled me.


I was also very much infatuated with the little I knew about Japanese culture and daydreamed about one day going to visit. But I couldn’t shake a feeling of dread — would it be wrong to visit some of the temples there, filled with idols, merely as a tourist? Was it wrong for me to even visit Catholic churches? Was it wrong for me to appreciate the art, and the beauty, and the history?

I was also torn. I regularly read the Old Testament, and throughout there are injunctions to God’s people to not only abstain from worshipping other deities and making graven images, but to also destroy idols and foreign gods.

Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. (Deuteronomy 12:3)

The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 7:25)

Men in the Bible were lauded as heroic precisely for destroying idols:

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign.He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah.He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done.He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) (2 Kings 18:1-4)

And a prophecy concerning the end times (lest you retort that this only applied before Jesus!)

In that day mankind will cast away their idols of silver and their idols of gold, which they made for themselves to worship. (Isaiah 2:20)

What I did not know, at the time, is that iconoclasm was not only common more in more recent Christian history but was actually central to the Reformation. Philip Jenkins wrote an excellent piece on it here. In particular, he quotes Motadel’s Times Literary Supplement review of Noyes’ book The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam:

The prototype of all modern forms of iconoclasm [Noyes] found in Calvin’s Geneva and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s Mecca. Sixteenth-century Geneva witnessed one of the most devastating waves of religious image-breaking in history. Incited by a group of charismatic theologians – among them John Calvin himself – mobs raged against objects associated with miracles, magic and the supernatural, destroying some of the city’s most precious pieces of Christian art. Invoking the Second Commandment, they denounced these works as idols, and as remnants of a rural, feudal and superstitious world, a world corrupted by Satan.

I am not saying that evangelicals outright approve of this destruction, I know for a fact that many of them deplore it, including Jenkins himself:

Modern Westerners are rightly appalled by such acts as desecrations of humanity’s cultural heritage. But such outrage demonstrates a near-total lack of awareness of the West’s own history. Nothing that the Islamists have done in this regard would cause the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers to lose a moment’s sleep. They would probably have asked to borrow hammers and axes so they could join in.

This is just another example of how modern sensibilities and values are often directly at odds with the biblical text itself. If you are a believer who is deeply disturbed by this footage and by the loss of humanity’s cultural inheritance, how do you reconcile that with your belief in the Bible and the passages addressing the issue of idolatry? How do you reconcile that with the recent history in your own faith tradition of destroying priceless religious art that is now lost forever?

One of the dangers of literalism is that it can lead to something like this seeming reasonable by those who take literalism more literally than most Christians presently do.

Comment here. More from Alexandra at Camels With Hammers:

The Faith of a Child
On Being A Religious Minority In A Secularized Culture

Unless otherwise noted, Camels With Hammers guest posts are not subject to editing for either content or style beyond minor corrections, so guest contributors speak for themselves and not for me (Daniel Fincke). To be considered at all, posts must conform to The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge and I must see enough intellectual merit in their opinions to choose to publish them, but no further endorsement is implied. If you would like to submit an article for consideration because you think it would be in keeping with the interests or general philosophy of this blog, please write me at

Browse Our Archives