Jesus on Fire and Holy Prayer Grenades
Once I preached at a church on worship. After my talk, we entered into a period of reflection and prayer, and a couple approached the altar. The husband moved behind the pulpit, reached under it and pulled out a rock. He placed it on the altar, then he and his wife knelt near it and prayed; they were quickly joined by other members of the congregation.
Needless to say, I was confused – what was the purpose of the stone? I thought it was perhaps a sign that a person wanted prayer – put the stone out and it means ‘Come pray with me’; leave it hidden and it means ‘I want to pray alone’.
A good guess, perhaps, but incorrect. After the gathering was finished, the man came up to me to explain that he was about to attend a prayer gathering at a nearby farm – the same farm from which he’d removed the rock. He told me that he was going to return the rock “once it was good and prayed up.” Apparently, the man envisioned the rock as some sort of Christian fetish – a religious term for a physical object believed to have spiritual power.
He believed that in some way the prayers with which he and his congregation had filled the rock would enhance the prayer gathering.
I was reminded of the prayer rock last Monday when we found out that the (in)famous “Touchdown Jesus” in Monroe, OH had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground (check out the YouTube footage of the conflagration in progress).
The statue was built in 2004 in front of the Solid Rock Church; it stands 62-feet tall and was made of plaster and styrofoam around a metal frame.
Reaction to the flames was mixed – in my circles we mostly laughed about it, but a lot of people apparently found the statue inspiring. One guy even said, “I think it’s a sign of the end of the world. If lightning is going to strike God, then there’s no hope.” Probably the most common sentiment I heard is represented best by the guy who asked how God could strike down the Jesus statue while leaving the billboard advertising an adult bookstore that stood across the street standing.
Everyone wanted to know what God is saying by striking down Touchdown Jesus. This thinking is still essentially fetish-ism. Solid Rock Church built a 60-foot tall statue with a metal core. Said metal core was struck by lightning, and since the material surrounding the metal were flammable, it caught fire. This is simple laws of physics.
What it is not is God taking a special interest in a five-year old giant Jesus.
The Scriptures present God as transcendent – above creation and separate from it. The second commandment (you know, in the big 10) is a prohibition against building idols. But idols in the ancient world were not things people worship instead of God (the way we usually explain idolatry today) – that prohibition is covered in the first commandment, “I am YHWH your god… You shall have no other gods before me.”
Rather, idols were used to bind gods to physical spaces. Thus, when the Israelites built the golden calf (Exodus 32), they were not worshiping the calf instead of God. Rather, they were binding God to the calf – bulls were used as mounts for gods in many Ancient Near Eastern temples. Thus, telling someone not to value his car more than God, or her romantic relationship more than God is not idolatry; it’s worship of the god of Consumerism or Romance (Mammon or Aphrodite, perhaps?)
God’s prohibition against idols is a command not to bind God to any created form, not to limit God by any physical space.
And in this way, I wonder if the prayer rock and Touchdown Jesus have become idols to some. They are not essentially idols – we can use physical objects to help us focus or to draw us towards God in our worship. But the prayer rock was not being charged with prayers to enhance our worship. He wanted to ensure that God did more, that God was more present at the gathering because of the prayer rock. The person who questions what message God is sending with a statue-destroying, porn-affirming bolt seems to think God has some sort of obligation to protect images of Godself (ironic, that) while destroying what the person in question considers obscene.
And that is idolatry. God is not bound to prayer rocks or giant statues of the incarnation. And God does not make a habit (at least in my knowledge) of breaking the laws of physics in order to protect our ill-advised mistakes. I wonder, though, if this yearning to have a physical connection with our faith reflects the extent to which our faith has become interior and spiritual to the exclusion of any affirmation of our real world and real bodies.
What do you think? Is the burning of Touchdown Jesus a sign? Can you charge rocks up with prayer? And what do these ideas say about contemporary Evangelical Christianity? Most importantly, how should Christians engage in this discussion?