Idol Anxiety

Idol Anxiety

Idol Anxiety

Idol Anxiety

Synopsis

This interdisciplinary collection of essays addresses idolatry, a contested issue that has given rise to both religious accusations and heated scholarly disputes. Idol Anxiety brings together insightful new statements from scholars in religious studies, art history, philosophy, and musicology to show that idolatry is a concept that can be helpful in articulating the ways in which human beings interact with and conceive of the things around them. It includes both case studies that provide examples of how the concept of idolatry can be used to study material objects and more theoretical interventions. Among the book's highlights are a foundational treatment of the second commandment by Jan Assmann; an essay by W.J.T. Mitchell on Nicolas Poussin that will be a model for future discussions of art objects; a groundbreaking consideration of the Islamic ban on images by Mika Natif; and a lucid description by Jean-Luc Marion of his cutting-edge phenomenology of the visible.

Excerpt

When the inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia made a new cult-statue for one of their temples, that object would first undergo an elaborate ceremony. This mīs pî or “mouth-washing” ritual consisted of numerous stages, over the course of which the object underwent a radical metamorphosis—it became the kind of thing one might appropriately treat as a god. A crucial moment in the ritual occurred when the artisans flung into a river the tools that they had used to make the cult-object. Following this act, the artisans held out their hands so that a priest could symbolically chop them off with a wooden sword. As the artisans, each of whom had just completed fashioning the object, extended their hands they would ritually chant: “I did not make it; I swear I did not make it; I did not make it; I swear I did not make it.”

This claim has its counterpoint in the polemic of the anonymous Hebrew prophet whom we know as “Second Isaiah,” an Israelite exile living in Babylonia. As a witness to Mesopotamian cultic practice and as one familiar with the thinking to which it corresponded, the prophet gleefully insisted, in order to discredit the Mesopotamian cult-object, on the fact of its human manufacture: “The makers of idols all work to no purpose.… They are craftsmen, they are merely human” (Isa. 44:9, 11). What appeared to his Mesopotamian neighbors as a god was, to the Israelite prophet, simply a work of human hands. This indictment of the cult-object has provided a basis for discourse on “idolatry” ever since.

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