On Burning Religious Books
September 11th is four days away, and it will mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. As a large portion of the world mourns, one church in Florida plans to celebrate with “Burn a Qur’an” day. How many copies of the Qur’an it will take to make a newsworthy flame I’m not sure, but I am sure the media will be there when the pile is lit.
The top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, says this anti-Muslim act will only vex America’s enemies in the Middle East and give Islamic radicals more clout in the eyes of the moderate Islamic world. The Florida church now says it will be “praying about” whether to continue with the burning ceremony. Whether the event will actually happen is yet to be seen, but my guess is that Islamic moderates around the world have learned to distinguish religious devotion from the meretricious display of zealots.
The Bible, as far as I can tell, mentions one account where religious texts are thrown to the flames (Acts 19:11-20). On the heels of the great work of God in Ephesus, the people had come to fear God and to trust in the Savior. As a result, “a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver” (v. 19). In modern terms they ignited a bonfire using very expensive magic books.
What were these books? According to Eckhard Schnabel, they were occultist documents that described how to make amulets to protect against demons and how to make love charms (Early Christian Mission, 1221). The books gave directions for casting spells on others, either for good or ill, and they would have been quite expensive, which highlights the effect of the gospel upon the wealthy inhabitants of Ephesus. That Paul went toe-to-toe with the owners of documents, which later led to a book burning, tells me they qualify as religious texts, and probubly comprised the pop religion of the day.
From this account here are six points to ponder:
1. The Ephesian people burned their own books. These new believers renounced their past. This was not an act of Christians barging into homes to ransack libraries for kindling, or weeding out the public library, or buying up all available copies from the local bookshop. They gathered the valuable books from their own houses.
2. No Christian leader encouraged the book burning. At least the text doesn’t say it. Or would have been better for the books to be sold and the money given to the Apostolic ministry? Perish the thought. There there is no indication that Paul advised the people to burn (or sell) their occultist books.
3. The books posed no threat to the gospel. The gospel overcame the magic power of the books. The gospel is like a hurricane and nothing will stop its wind, certainly not a book of demonic spells.
4. God’s display of power convinced the people that their books were worthless. There was no need to address the value of the magic books directly. Once God’s power and his gospel were seen in the city, the matter was settled.
5. The book burning was a display of godly sorrow. The recently converted Christians wanted to confess their sin before “all.” The high value of the books (50,000 days wages worth!) made a strong statement. It was an act of personal sorrow for their own sin.
6. The burning illustrated the victory of the gospel. The magic books were burned because the gospel was spreading like wildfire: “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (v. 20).
These six points should make us very hesitant about burning other people’s religious books.
May God give the Church open doors to preach the gospel, and may he bless his Word with self-authenticating gospel fruit. If we take our eyes off the priority of the gospel, we will be tempted to settle for the sparks of a small bonfire in a church parking lot, a miniature replica of what happened in Ephesus. The true gospel spreads like a wildfire, if we are faithful to lovingly and boldly proclaim it.