Paul Elie is a senior fellow with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and the director of the American Pilgrimage Project, a university partnership with StoryCorps based in the Berkley Center. His work deals primarily with the ways religious ideas are given expression in literature, the arts, music, and culture in the broadest sense. In the American Pilgrimage Project he examines the ways religious beliefs inform the experiences of the American people at crucial moments in their lives. Elie is also the moderator of Georgetown's Faith and Culture Series, a series of public conversations about the interaction of religion, art, literature, and society. He is the author of two books. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) is a group portrait of four twentieth-century Catholic writers (Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day). Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) chronicles the transformation of Bach's music through recording technology in the hands of great musicians (Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Glenn Gould, Yo-Yo Ma, et al.). Both books were National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, and The Life You Save May Be Your Own received the PEN / Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, a Christopher Award, and two Modern Language Association book prizes.
“The power of the image” has been a commonplace at least since Daniel Boorstin called attention to the role of images in politics way back in 1961. The power of the image is basic to our understanding of religion, too; many have argued, for example, that Christianity in Europe was organized first around the image and only latterly around words (due to the Reformation, the printing press, and the emergence of vernacular translations of scripture). And yet my strongest impression of the destruction of the World Trade Center, 20 years on, is a kind of sustained surprise at the attack’s swift and powerful foregrounding of the image, the visual gesture, as the lingua franca of religiously rooted terror and of religion-and-culture broadly in the two decades since.
I heard the attack before I saw it—heard a loud, explosive sound outside the apartment in the East Village where I was writing before going to work on the morning of September 11. From then on, the attack was fundamentally a visual event: a tower burning; a second tower struck; one collapsing, and then the other; the smoking ruin (seen from my bicycle the next day); the photograph of firefighters hauling the body of Fr. Mychal Judge out of the ruins; the MISSING PERSON fliers (for dead persons, we all but knew) on every pillar and post in Union Square; the New York Post’s WANTED poster of Osama Bin Laden, stuck up in the rear windows of cars; the photograph of the “falling man,” kept out of the newspapers but published in The New Republic.
My strongest impression of the destruction of the World Trade Center, 20 years on, is a kind of sustained surprise at the attack’s swift and powerful foregrounding of the image, the visual gesture.
The 9/11 attack was conceived as a (literally) striking image. It conveyed the cunning and determination of Islamist fanatics with a force that hostage-taking and fatwas never did. And it suggested the limits of words both in expressing religion and in comprehending it.
Whether it’s due to what might be called the semiotic effect of the attack or not, the life of religion-and-culture since then presents itself in my mind through images: the coffin at John Paul’s funeral outside St. Peter’s, coffin drape flapping in the wind; Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits on their knees and at knifepoint, moments before they were beheaded; one of the Boston Marathon bombers hiding under a dry-docked boat in a backyard nearby; President Obama eulogizing the victims of the white-nationalist-Christian assassin who struck the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and victims’ relatives drawing together to offer forgiveness; Bishop Theodore McCarrick in a bathing suit, one arm around a shirtless teenage boy; Pope Francis alone in the rain with a cross upraised over his head as the COVID-19 pandemic overtook Italy; the face of George Floyd, a martyr by acclamation; Donald Trump outside a church near the White House, holding up a Bible like a suspicious foreign object; Rev. William Barber, resplendently robed, stepping out for a fresh iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign.
What strikes me now—with those images running round my brain—is that the act of seeking comprehension of strong images is very much akin to the world-comprehending acts we call religious.
Those public images had, and continue to have, counterparts in my own experience: dozens of pairs of shoes outside a mosque in north London; sharp-dressed men and women congregating at the French-Speaking Baptist Church in Brooklyn after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince; Satmar Hasidim fur-hatted but maskless during the worst days of COVID-19 in New York City; alternate pews closed off with fluorescent tape at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo; Nigerian women dancing outside the mosque on the street where I live, which was closed to traffic for an end-of-Ramadan feast…
We are still making sense of those images. I know I am. I’ll be doing so for the next 20 years. And what strikes me now—with those images running round my brain—is that the act of seeking comprehension of strong images is very much akin to the world-comprehending acts we call religious.