Last week, a fifteen-foot-tall totem meant to represent a pagan god from Eastern Europe was put on display in a historic 200-year-old mainline Protestant church in Binghamton, N.Y. The church hosted the image of the idol as part of the LUMA Projection Arts Festival.
“Sviatovid will materialize on the altar of Binghamton United Presbyterian Church with additional content,” the festival website announced. “In an homage to the striking 19th century architecture of the church, the students of the BARTKRESA academy will build an original 3.5 minute pre-show. The church spire, pipe organ and stained glass inform the new work.”
Theologically, Presbyterian churches do not have altars, but rather communion tables. As Juicy Ecumenism’s Josiah Aden pointed out, the pagan image was displayed in the church’s chancel, not on its nonexistent altar. The prominent placement of the idol — and the claim that the church’s spire, pipe organ, and stained glass “inform the new work” — are worrisome, however.
“A fifteen-foot-tall faceted totem, Sviatovid is inspired by a ninth century Slavic deity and a medieval sculpture of the same name. With four faces, Sviatovid was not omniscient, but could take in the world from literally all four cardinal directions,” the LUMA festival website explained. “In keeping with the deity’s origin story, Sviatovid is on an intercontinental expedition to bring people closer together.”
As Aden explained, the totem is based on an archaeological artifact discovered near the Zbruch River in Western Ukraine. While it is possible the idol was a forgery, some scholars have argued that it depicts the pagan god Perun, the god of war, fertility, and abundance — a god historically viewed as being in competition with the Christian God.
“According to the early Ruthenian chronicles, Prince Vladimir the Great erected a cult statue of Perun (along with other Pagan idols) outside of his palace in Kiev shortly after he started his rule in 980,” Mikołaj Gliński wrote for Poland’s culture web portal. “As the greatest Slavic god, Perun was considered equal in power to the new Christian God. This however was no mitigating circumstance, as in 988 shortly after the Kiev Duchy adopted Christianity, the same ruler ordered that the pagan idols be destroyed. The greatest of them, Perun, was tied to a horse, dragged down a hill, and repeatedly beaten with sticks, before being eventually thrown into the Dnieper River. Vladimir then ordered that the statue be floated downstream until it passed the Dnieper Rapids.”
Yet Binghamton United Presbyterian Church displayed an image of this idol inside the church on September 7 and 8.
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The first of the Ten Commandments reads, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image … You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5).
When asked “What is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
In the second century B.C., the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes set up an altar to Zeus in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and set up an idol of Zeus made after his own likeness. According to some reports, he also sacrificed pigs. This desecration led the Jews to revolt under Judas Maccabeus, establishing an independent Israel for the first time in more than 100 years.
Christians consider the true church of Jesus — His body — to be the believers, not the physical church buildings (1 Corinthians 6:19, 12:27). Even so, there is something sacrilegious about a church hosting an image of a pagan idol in a building dedicated to the worship of God.
The church may have agreed to host the idol in the spirit of multiculturalism or as a celebration of art. If so, this seems to illustrate the danger of going too far to embrace foreign cultures and forgetting that Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Many liberal congregations have embraced universalism, the doctrine that people can be saved without Jesus. This doctrine is a clear rejection of the Bible’s teaching, and it belittles Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.
Many prominent Christians have drifted away from the faith as they reject the claims that Jesus is the only way to salvation and embrace the culturally popular LGBT sexual morality.
For its part, Binghamton United Presbyterian Church affiliates itself with More Light Presbyterians, a pro-LGBT group of Presbyterians that advocates for same-sex marriage, rejecting the Bible’s teaching of marriage as between one man and one woman. It describes itself as a “proudly open and affirming congregation” welcoming to “nontraditional families.”
A member of the PC(USA) liberal denomination, Binghamton United Presbyterian Church experienced a drop in its congregation from 2013-2017 (from 220 to 178 members, 19 percent), while Sunday attendance declined from 64 to 53 (17 percent). While the church prizes diversity, the congregation is not diverse. It only includes four nonwhite members, with 72 percent of members age 65 or older.
The church did not respond to PJ Media’s request for comment by press time.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.