angkor: a cautionary tale


While I was finishing up my graduate studies in Minnesota, one of the last projects I had to put together was a theoretical action plan for a static and stagnant church environment. In doing meticulous, exhaustive research into the case study presented to us by the professor–that is to say, while I was procrastinating putting the blasted thing together–I discovered these images of the Angkor ruins, the remains of a Hindu sacred site in Cambodia. They ended up inspiring the action plan, which was well-received. And then I exhaled.

Note what is surrounding the entrance: that’s a tree. Trees were planted inside the temple when it was built 1000-1200 years ago. Now, they have consumed much of original sacred space; most of everything else at Angkor has been restored, but the temples themselves inside the complex are nearly impossible to rebuild thanks to the trees.

That which is symbolic of devotion to a religious cause is, in reality, that which undoes.

When it comes to religious life, what attacks from the outside becomes a rallying point; after all, it is not part of what is religious, therefore, it is easier to defend, rightly or wrongly, against it. When it comes from within, though, it demonstrates the fact that people have grown so accustomed to religious life as to not actually care. What was sacred becomes ruins, a curiosity for archaeologists and tourists alike.

Some cathedrals in Europe are now museums. American megachurches are referred to as malls where one talks with God. It’s the same principle. The only difference between Western Christianity and Angkor, ultimately, is the lack of indoor gardening. Silk plants won’t tear apart steel buildings.

However, an idea, a hope, a belief will bring majesty to poverty, make the rich poor, the righteous profane and lay to waste that which we build to symbolize that which is sacred. Angkor. Televised Sunday services. Super Bowl. State of the Union. All simulacra.

/hangs head in shame for employing a Baudrillard reference

Someone who is not me once said, and I paraphrase, that we are experts in the craft of idol-making. We elevate something that symbolizes our commitment or concern to even-footing with the object of our commitment or concern itself. This manifests itself everywhere, as religious thinking is inescapably ubiquitous: be it in partisan politics, biblicism (or bibliolatry), devotion to a sports team, a pop culture artifact, commitment to a field of study or even in something as mundane as where we get our coffee. We are a species so adept at fashioning idols that we generally wouldn’t recognize something truly divine or sacred if it manifested itself in front of our faces and singed our eyebrows.

The tree that was planted to honor becomes the weed which destroys.

It is then incumbent upon us to tend to what we hold sacred, and prune when necessary, lest we be swayed elsewhere and entropy takes over.


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