Sacred or Superficial?

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Encouraged by a number of my congregants, my wife and I recently visited the impressive ‘Sacred’ exhibition at London’s British Library. Billed as ‘the rarest and most exquisite sacred books and manuscripts presented and explored, side by side, in a major UK exhibition for the first time’, it didn’t disappoint. Balanced between Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books, the 202 exhibits are absolutely magnificent (get a taste of them here) and left me wanting to return to see them again soon. As the exhibition doesn’t end until 23rd September, if you live in the UK or are planning to visit, do make it a priority. I hope to get there at least once more.

I was especially taken with the calligraphy, the accuracy and beauty of which defy description. I am not particularly skilled with my hands: I actually struggle to read my own handwriting. In comparison, the control, artistic flair and accuracy required to produce an illuminated manuscript are quite breathtaking. I am, of course, familiar with beautiful safrus (Hebrew sacred calligraphy), but I have never been exposed to exquisite scripts from other religions written in other alphabets; I found learning about their manufacture fascinating (see here) and consider the final products a remarkable testimony to human ingenuity.

The layout of ‘Sacred’ is also most attractive: the manuscripts are interspersed with religious artefacts, all of great beauty and some of major significance (for example, an original entrance-curtain from the Kaaba in Mecca). There is also tasteful background music, as well as carefully arranged lighting and projections; it’s clear that a huge amount of thought and effort has gone into arranging the exhibition.

While, understandably, great care was taken to avoid mentioning areas of violent religious conflict, the curator was bold enough to address an obvious question: why there are so few very early Jewish manuscripts. In at least one place, the display informs the reader that the extreme rarity of early Jewish manuscripts is explained by the practice of mediaeval Christian authorities of collecting them up and burning them.

The exhibition is not perfect, of course. I was irritated by some of the display panels referring to aspects of Judaism in a rather simplistic and only partially-accurate manner: I also felt that some of the interactive computer displays about Judaism lack depth and substance. I am insufficiently knowledgeable to assess the quality of the displays and computer materials dealing with Christianity and Islam, but I could well imagine a scholar from one of these traditions expressing the same frustrations.

My enthusiasm for ‘Sacred’ is also tempered with some reservations about its objectives. The exhibition is supported by a number of foundations whose mission is to promote understanding between members of different faiths. In a difficult world, where religious tensions run high and especially in the UK, where the benefits (or otherwise) of multiculturalism are the topic of weekly high-level concern, this is certainly a vital and responsible ambition. However, there is a huge gulf between developing mutual respect, understanding and intelligent dialogue between the faiths (an objective that I whole-heartedly endorse) and advancing the notion that what divides the faiths is slight, perhaps even only a matter of style and cultural expression (one that I reject).

One can assert one’s beliefs without compromise, even reinforcing why one rejects other religious convictions, without losing one’s tolerance and even acceptance of those who strongly disagree. The differences between the beliefs, practices and aspirations of the different faiths are huge; even the nature of God Himself is hotly disputed, never mind how one ought to live one’s life. We deal ourselves and our attempts at interfaith harmony a serious blow if we pretend otherwise. Reducing religious differences to externalities is unhelpful and misleading.

Perhaps I am over-sensitive, but ‘Sacred’ smells to me a little like an attempt to promote the ‘we’re-all-really-the-same-it’s-just-a-question-of-style’ ideology. Rather than being grouped by faith origin, the manuscripts are displayed according to eras, progressing from Jewish through Christian and Muslim tracts. One of the reasons for this is clearly to allow a comparison of the calligraphy of different periods, but to me it also conveyed a sense of ‘look how similar they all are.’ Moreover, I felt that some of the displays went out of their way to present the small number of similarities between the three religious traditions, rather than offer a more balanced picture. For example, as depicted in one of the video displays, Jewish, Christian and Muslim wedding ceremonies do indeed have more than a passing resemblance to each another. However, when it comes to any kind of serious issue, such as basic theology, festival celebration, Messianic belief, and even the value and function of the Bible itself, they differ vastly. And the final computer at the exit leaves the visitor with the explicit message that there is so much that the faiths share, much more than what divides them: in some ways this is true, but in so many other senses, it is not.

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2 Responses

  1. Abigail says:

    It will not surprise you that I wrote a comment on that computer thingy at the end deconstructing the stance of the exhibition: in addition to all you mention above, it struck me as just *how* early C21st to end the exhibition with a computer where everyone could write their own feelings and random opinions about religioun based on, well, just about nothing (judging from the ones they displayed). While I do think it’s worthwhile for people to express a “connection” to the subject matter of the exhibition, ending with this kind of thing to me debases the importance of the exhibition materials by confusing the idea of allowing a breadth of opinion to be heard with the reality TV idea that everyone’s opinion is worth plastering on the wall. There are fora for this kind of discussion, but I don’t think the very end of a manuscript exhibition is the right place for this, especially when there is relatively little “informed” discussion of the nature/roles of religion actually in the exhibition.

  2. Mike S says:

    When I was in London about a decade ago, there was an exhibit of Jewish manuscripts at the British Museum. It included an autograph manuscript of a tshuvah of the Rambam. It was not beautifully calligraphed, but it was perhaps the most awe inspiring museum piece I have ever seen.