My wife and I have just returned from three weeks’ holiday. During this time, we got to some interesting places including Rome, Istanbul, Corinth and Ephesus. As a Christian, these particular places were naturally of great interest to me. But yet again, I was struck by the superstition which still surrounds the Christian faith in so many places.
I’ve often thought the Church took a ‘left turn’ when Christianity was adopted by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD. From this point, the genuine article, the true faith, as revealed to us in the New Testament began to be swamped with worldly things. Pagan shrines and places of worship were ‘Christianised’, as were pagan festivals (such as 25th December). At the same time, the sudden acceptance and therefore ‘respectability’ of the faith created a demand, not just for places of worship, festivals and ritual, but relics and holy sites too. For example, whilst in Ephesus, we visited the tomb of St. John (though his bones have apparently been removed and taken to Rome). Nearby is the house where Mary, the mother of our Lord, lived out the remainder of her life (John having taken her to Ephesus with him). Such sites may or may not be genuine but of course, the tourist industry works hard to convince us that they are. In this are at any rate, ‘religion’ is still looked upon as a moneyspinner.
But there are other ways of cashing in too. Of course, today, splinters of the real cross and phials containing the actual blood of the crucified Saviour are thin on the ground, so most of the ‘holy’ sites such as the remains of Ephesus are now surrounded by ramshackle stalls where merchants sell gimcrack icons, crosses, statuettes and other items of tawdry paraphernalia. Whilst looking around some of these stalls, we were both especially amused by two which proudly bore large signs proclaiming; ‘Genuine Fake Watches’ (really, I kid you not!) At one point, I was actually chased by a rather exuberant street vendor who tried to sell me such a watch, a Rolex no less. The price, he informed me, was only twenty euros. I pointed out that I already had a watch, holding out my wrist and displaying my humble Seiko. ‘Why buy a fake when I have a real watch?’ I asked in amusement. He replied; ‘Ah, but this is a genuine fake!’ As I walked into the distance I heard the voice shout, ‘okay, 15 euros,’ and then a few seconds later, a rather distant, desperate and almost heart-rending… ’12 euros!’
I found the whole episode funny. But of course, the fake religiousness attached to our faith isn’t that different. There’s the real, genuine Christianity; the simplicity, the dying to self, the persecution – the giving away of our wealth and the requirement to love even our enemies and all the rest of it. And then there’s all this other stuff; not only the grandeur (some of which I have to admit to admiring; the art, the architecture etc,) but the apparent need many people have for tangible objects; relics, saints’ shrines, icons to kiss, pilgrimages to places such as Walsingham and Lourdes where miraculous cures may be obtained – and so on.
We may have a tendency to see such things, hanging on since the Dark Ages, as folk superstition.
But of course, all the superstition is still very much alive today, not only in the areas outlined, but perhaps even worse, in the twaddle churned out by the typical American televangelists (see Calvin’s recent entry) with their empty words: ‘You can find your destiny; God has a plan for your life and doesn’t want you to suffer. He wants you to be rich! Buy one of these amazing prayer cloths for a ‘love gift’ of only… dollars.’
Naturally, both the superstitions of past ages and the modern equivalents being hawked by TV preachers may contain some nuggets of comfort, help and truth. After all, even a fake Rolex is still a watch of sorts. Sadly, the largely ‘fake’ versions of our faith have become, for many, the genuine article, despite the fact that they have virtually nothing to do with the life and teachings of Jesus, the humble carpenter from Nazareth. Such phoney trappings of the Christian religion are very much like those Rolex watches; ‘genuine fake’.