In a gloomy week of U.S. religion news dominated by Terry Jones’s mumbling brinksmanship, you might have missed the fact that Repent Amarillo’s spiritual leader, David Grisham, was planning a Qur’an-burning of his own. Repent Amarillo is a group – like Jones’s Dove World Outreach operation in Gainesville – whose most visible activities to date consist mainly of fairly crude provocations, though unlike Dove, insulting Muslims seems to be just a sideline for them. They made a name for themselves by organizing van-loads of the faithful to go and heckle people on their way into and out of a so-called “swingers’ club” on the outskirts of Amarillo, Texas. They also maintain a fairly creepy online “prayer map,” with color-coded pins indicating the location of establishments tainted by various kinds of dangerous influences, including, among others, Islamic, Buddhist and Unitarian houses of worship, shops that sell “occult” merchandise, palm readers, strip clubs, Masonic lodges, gay-friendly churches, and so forth.
Anyhow, the main facts of the event seem to be more or less as follows: Grisham came to a public park with a few supporters, a nice hardcover Qur’an, some kerosene, and one of those long lighter gizmos. He was confronted by a sizable and noisy group of counter-demonstrators, some of whom were apparently pretty aggressive about getting in his face and telling him off. (Repent Amarillo has been accused of some pretty nasty kinds of harassment, like tracking people down using license plate numbers, following them, and contacting their employers and families.) Grisham apparently put his Qur’an on one of those big barbecue grills they have in public parks, soaked it with kerosene (or “dowsed” it, to quote the news report), and then became distracted by the crowd, who were doing things like putting their hands on the grill to prevent him from lighting it. The dramatic climax — recounted in the video below — came when 23-year-old skateboard guy Jacob Isom “snook up” behind him, said, “Dude, you have no Qur’an,” snatched the book away, and “took off,” eventually handing Grisham’s Qur’an off to a local imam. (NewsChannel 10 gets credit for “snook,” too.) Watch the video. Isom is rather delightful.
A couple of interesting things about this piece jumped out at me. First, it’s notable right off the bat that we have a story about the non-performance of a ritual (Extra! Extra! Quran not burned in park!), specifically the ritual desecration of a sacred text. Second, in this age of virtuality, in a supposedly disenchanted world, it’s also striking that you can derail a religious expression by depriving someone of what is on one level no more than a prop. Maybe Bob Orsi is right – maybe even today, popular religion still centers around the notion of “presence” in a physical, material sense. Third, it’s easy to tell who NewsChannel 10 thinks the good guys are in this video: the multicultural, liberal, tolerant, happy, laughing, singing bunch of people who thwarted Grisham’s plans. Even the camera work — panning past smiling, diverse crowds for the counter-protesters; a perp-walk-like shot from the back of Grisham sheepishly climbing into his car for Repent Amarillo — contributes to the construction of a narrative of liberal tolerance vs. extremism. And finally, when’s the last time you heard a mainstream news reporter refer to a conservative Christian group as “radical Christians”?
If you’re curious to learn more about Repent Amarillo, which started making national news about six or seven months ago but has probably been in existence longer, there is good coverage (though highly slanted against the group) at Texas Observer and at Talk2Action, with some additional information at Think Progress. For photographs of Saturday’s event (all taken by Repent Amarillo’s detractors), the best place to look is this Facebook page maintained by Amarillo Citizens against Repent Amarillo (ACARA). Local news coverage is at NewsChannel 10 and at the Amarillo Globe-News.