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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

entry arrow4:59 PM | Independence From Holy Monkeys

"When a book is burned, the ultimate tyranny has been committed."
--John Steinbeck

They are burning books in Manila -- and the very thought of that sends chills to my bones, because no matter how "noble" or "sacred" the reason may be, there is something undeniably barbaric to that act of setting fire to bound volumes. The book, after all, is the singular symbol for human civilization, the epitome of our pursuit for enlightenment—indeed (and quite ironically perhaps), adherents of all the major faiths are called People of the Book, because we take sacred the bound pronouncements of our faith, like the Bible, the Talmud, or the Koran. To burn any book -- even if the disputed book is accused of heresy, blasphemy, or just plain stupidity -- becomes the repugnant anti-thesis for what makes us human. To burn a book is to eradicate the divide that separates us from mere monkeys. There are many monkeys in Manila, all of them smug in their self-generated aura of righteousness.

Sometimes I wonder if there are monkeys in Dumaguete, too.

I can imagine the bonfire that must have made Manila mayor Lito Atienza smile, the grin quite impish, like that of a marmoset's. I can imagine the flames that must have licked at the pages and the glued bindings, while the ashes of what had once been printed words rained down on a gleeful crowd, the way it must have been when the Puritans -- secure in their paranoid divinity -- were burning women accused of witchcraft in Salem. History has since redeemed these "witches," and condemned those "righteous" men and women of Salem to the footnotes of villainy.

How will history treat the "righteous" people of Manila? The answer is so easy to predict.

A quick run-through of the history of book-burning ultimately cast burners in the most unfavorable light -- no matter how popular their act might have been at the time of the bonfire. Our Manila book-burners share ignominy with the likes of China's Qin Shi Huang who ordered all philosophy books and history books burned in 213 B.C., which led to the live burial of a large number of intellectuals who did not comply with the state dogma; Theophilus who trashed, burned, and looted the library of the Serapeum in Alexandria in 392 A.D., at the order of Theodosius I; Tomas Torquemada who promoted the burning of non-Catholic literature, especially the Jewish Talmud; the illiterate Prague archbishop Zbynek Zajic z Hazmburka in the court of his palace who, in 1410, burned John Wycliffe's books; the notorious Girolamo Savonarola who precipitated what is now known as the "Bonfire of the Vanities," burning books, cosmetics, fine dresses and furniture, copies of Boccaccio's Decameron, and all the works of Ovid that could be found in Florence; Fray Diego de Landa, acting bishop of the Yucatan, who threw into the fires the sacred books of the Maya, in 1562; Armand Dufau, the director of the school for the blind in Paris, France who in 1842 ordered the burning of books written in the new Braille code; and Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party who, on 10 May 1933 on the Opernplatz in Berlin, burned around 20,000 books from the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft and the Humboldt University, including works by Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Heinrich Heine, and H.G. Wells. Add to this list Mayor Lito Atienza and the warriors of faith of Manila.

One should not take this as a defense for Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I read the hardcover many years back, when the controversy was still building and the book still gathering speed to race to the top of bestsellers lists everywhere. I found it escapist fare, an enjoyable book which was so badly-written I actually vacillated between awe for its pace and page-turning ability, and the leaden prose that proved almost fatal. I did not want to be seen anywhere reading it, and subsequently gave it away to my high school best friend Jacqueline, who in high school introduced me to Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, which proved the better read. (I have yet to see the movie by Ron Howard, but have taken note of the critical drubbing it is getting -- from the New York Times to Salon.com, to ordinary people who have already seen it either in Manila or Cebu. The verdict has pronounced it mediocre beyond any expectations.)

Still, I had always found the idea espoused by Brown as something intriguing, but also disposable given the holes in his research. But to burn the book for heresy? Are we back in the Middle Ages?

The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported last May 27 that copies of the book and the film -- mostly photocopies and pirated DVDs and VCDs -- were fodder to a bonfire at the Bonifacio Shrine during a prayer rally organized by youth and religious groups, all in the name of countering blasphemy. According to reporters Nini Valera and Tina G. Santos, "news of the book burning started to circulate in coffee shops about two weeks before the movie opened. The idea was first attributed to a group of Ateneo alumni who protested what they said was the book's attacks on the Catholic faith." The alleged leader of the book burning movement Jesse Paredes, an Ateneo alumnus and frequent bar customer in Malate, reportedly crowed, "God is big in Manila." (And small everywhere else?)

That sweeping sense of arrogance and self-righteousness is the one thing that has always alienated me from my roots of Christian fundamentalism -- which I take as also the reason why the Christian faith has lost so much of its flock all over the world, and given rise to the popularity of such books as Brown's. (In Europe, for example, all those beautiful cathedrals we see in pictures cater to almost empty houses every Sunday.) I was the stereotypical Sunday School kid growing up, but I've since come to question the stupefying insularity of fundamentalist thinking, which smacks of self-willing blindness to social context and multiculturalism, affirmed by pronouncements such as "being blind to the sins of the world." I found that fundamentalism bred so much hatred, intolerance, and arrogance that I wanted no part of it anymore. Mama always told me anyway that "God is a personal God" -- hence, personal worship as the only way to preserve faith without subscribing to the close-minded herd-mentality of fundamentalism. Here is a certain Mike Bichara, for example, who said that the book burning was "meant to dramatize their sentiment against the book and the movie." The story also reported that he owned several moviehouses in the provinces, and said he banned The Da Vinci Code as well, saying that people in the provinces won't be interested in the movie. "They don't understand it," he said. "It's mostly dialogue anyway." What the--? Arrogant bastard.

My metaphorical paradigm for faith is the Old Testament picture of Jacob wrestling with the angel, in Genesis 32:22-32. "Question your faith, question your preacher," I always tell everyone who asks me about faith. "That's the only way to lead an active Christian life. To just sit in church and nod and nod and nod DO NOT make you a good Christian. It just makes you an excellent nodder." To wrestle, to consider carefully each tenet of faith, to be a good Christian is to weigh everything, especially the spiritual significance of the utterances of "prophets" -- because there are too many false ones. For a long time, I went with mother to her church whose preacher would talk long and hard over ... absolutely nothing; it left me frustrated because I wanted to learn something, which might have accounted for those years when I suddenly just stopped going and watched TV instead. Early Sunday morning cartoons, especially The Simpsons, became the new religion. About three years ago, a friend invited me to her church, which had a medical doctor for a preacher, and found that the spiritual became more compelling when it also courted the cerebral. And yet, one time, that enlightened church invited a not-so-enlightened guest preacher who proceeded to slam the Modern Woman for going out of the kitchen, which was "her place." In the middle of his holy, macho tirade, I stood up and walked out.

Of course, I question, too, the "facts" Dan Brown stirs up in his fiction. I question the dubious beginning of his grail theory which sprung from the historical hoax planted by Pierre Plantard, a known con artist. I question, too, his representation of the Opus Dei, and the many other misrepresentations and misinformation he peppers his book with.

So what good can The Da Vinci Code do for us? Paradoxically, it makes us an active participant in our search for God. It makes us struggle in an effort of knowing our faith more, instead of just standing by and nodding to all dogmas fed to us. It makes us take our faith seriously, maybe for the first time in a lifetime of mere lip service, and makes us start reading up on our faith's history, its controversies, its paradoxes, and its enduring legacies. Time Magazine, for example, has recently credited the book for opening up theological arguments about the role of Mary Magdalene in the Early Church. Reduced, mistakenly, by a very patriarchal Church to the role of redeemed prostitute, we now see Mary Magdalene in a new light, as an apostle of the first rank. If for that, I am thankful for Dan Brown for stirring the tempest so information like these can finally be made known.

Book-burning and censorship do not work, because they employ the mistaken notion that by denying people access to "dangerous" information, they are ultimately saved. That notion is wrong, and history has proven this over and over again.

Independence Day is just around the corner, and perhaps instead of just celebrating the independence of a nation, we should also take into account the necessity for declaring the independence of the mind and the pursuit for knowledge and enlightenment, from the enslavement of medieval thinking cloaked by the sheen of religiosity.

And I hope this to be the case even for my small city. Last Wednesday, we went to Ever Theater to be the first in line to watch the first-day showing of The Da Vinci Code, as promised by its schedule. We were met instead by a poster for Nanny McPhee.

"What happened to Da Vinci Code?" I asked the box-office ticket seller. She only smiled, and laughed nervously.

A thought occurred to me. "Did the city ban the movie?" I asked.

She laughed nervously again, and never said a single word.

Maybe there is a ban, and maybe there is not. But what I don't want, most of all, is to get an affirmation that even in this "enlightened" University Town -- local bastion of learning, inquiry, and independent thought -- there are monkeys in City Hall.

Hear that Perdices, you old ape?

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