Not Religion's Future: ISIS and the Art of Destruction

See the opening of today's series here: "What Is the Future of Religion?" by Frank J. Fleming. Also check out Aaron C. Smith's installment here: "The Future of Religion: Why Judeo-Christian Values Are More Important Than Science"

Recently, ISIS ransacked a museum full of ancient Assyrian and Akkadian artifacts in Mosul. They upended works of art from the 7th century before Christ and whacked enormous chunks off of them with sledgehammers. There’s a video.

If you think this is the least of our ISIS problems, you’re not wrong. You can tell me a single human life is worth more than everything Raphael ever painted, and I won’t argue with you for a second. When they behead Christians and hurl gay men to their deaths, those are inestimable losses. A museum raid pales in comparison.

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But I still felt sick watching them do this, and I think there’s a reason. I think there’s something in this video that drives home what we’re dealing with here. It’s like pulling the face off the Terminator to reveal the hideous grinning gears and diodes underneath. Watching ISIS destroy art shows me exactly who they really are.

It comes down to why we make art. To my mind, it’s because there’s something about being human that’s more than just facts. I can tell you perfectly well in prose what kind of sandwich I had for lunch, or how old I am. But to tell you what it’s like when I look at the night sky or fall in love, I need poetry. Or a painting. Or something — anything — that conveys the indescribable catch in my chest. “Where words fail, music speaks”: there’s something bigger than language in the human heart.

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Now, all those big bull-lion-eagle-dude sculptures in Mosul don’t do a lot for me personally. But I recognize that irreducible worth in them: I see that someone felt something he couldn’t say in words. Something about the nobility of the human form, the humanity and inhumanity of the divine. So he got a big rock and he started chipping away at it until it spoke for him. He gave the thing in his heart a shape in the stone. That’s what Shelley meant in his poem about emotions “which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”: that statue records a moment inside the soul of a human being. And that record is worth preserving.

But of course, to believe all this, you have to believe there’s something there to record. You have to believe a man is more than physical stuff — more than muscle, blood, and bones. What ISIS demonstrated in their video is that they don’t believe that. And their god doesn’t believe either. The video begins with a verse from the Qur’an about idolatry. Then someone declares that “god has ordered” that the statues be destroyed, and so “they became worthless to us.” Exactly: the god of ISIS is a god to whom humanity means nothing. He demands that people be treated like meat, gruesomely sacrificed to his power-hungry nihilism. Of course that god wants the evidence of human transcendence to be pounded into rubble. To the god of ISIS art is, as the man in the video says, just “some stones.”

Now tell me this isn’t a religious fight.

This is what the president, and The New Yorker, and all our well-meaning multiculturalist friends refuse to acknowledge. There is a question in front of us. Do we believe god lusts after power at the expense of human dignity and life? Or do we believe God humbled himself to the point of death for the sake of that dignity and life? I am not a scholar of Islam. I do not know anything about what most Muslims believe. But I know which god ISIS believes in. They showed me again in Mosul.

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What ISIS did in that museum is a kind of art in itself. Their video is a performance, an enactment of their core creed. They’re symbolically expressing their belief that the human soul has no worth. It’s not just the destruction of art: it’s the art of destruction.

In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem for the last time, his disciples hail him aloud as the King. The Pharisees want to shut them up, but Jesus says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” When the truth is silenced, the whole world screams it in our ears. And the West is falling silent: we’re refusing to put an honest name to the kind of god ISIS fights for. So the message is getting louder and louder — in Mosul, the very stones are crying out.