Many great artists work within the cultural conventions of their day and garner suitable acclaim. However, works of genius tend to be sui generis and consequently may be regarded as a betrayal of accepted standards. A Parisian audience rioted at the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, although it was not immediately clear whether theatergoers objected more to his dissonant music or to Vaslev Nijinsky’s unconventional choreography. James Joyce’s monumental Ulysses was banned throughout the English-speaking world. Vincent van Gogh, who spent time in a lunatic asylum and died by his own hand, sold only one painting in his lifetime. William Blake was regarded as a madman by many of his contemporaries and died a pauper.
The term genius is rarely applied to religious figures, but the dynamic is much the same. The difference is that an artistic genius risks only his or her reputation if viewed as betraying accepted cultural standards, whereas a truly singular religious figure risks much more if he or she is viewed as betraying God. “Woe to you!” Jesus once rebuked the religious authorities of his day, “for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed.” Jesus himself soon fell victim to the same impulse. The prophet Elijah was forced to flee for his life into the wilderness for having overthrown the pagan prophets of Baal. John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipias, whom he had criticized for unlawfully divorcing his own wife to marry his brother’s. St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred by the Romans for their religious proselytizing. Joan of Arc saved France but could not save herself when she fell into the hands of English clerics who accused her of witchcraft. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King both dared to speak the truth to power in our own day and were assassinated.
In the Western world at least, unconventional religious views are rarely regarded as consequential enough these days to merit serious attention, much less martyrdom. We are taken aback by the furious response even to seemingly minor deviations from accepted religious practice among hardcore believers. Edith Wharton suggested that either a candle or a mirror is good for spreading light. In practice, however, those who dare to shine by their own light are often victimized by those who do not. The ones who prefer to mirror the light are usually seeking the reflection of a reflection, the faintest glimmer from long ago -- certainly nothing to fire the soul.
There is an old story that Buddha’s followers were dismayed when they realized he was dying, and they asked him who would teach them after he was gone. “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” he advised them. But, of course, this is the one thing most true believers are not prepared to do. As mirrors, they are drawn to the light. But their prayers and rituals and meditative practices teach them only how to bring themselves to a highly polished state, not to shine themselves. And so, once the lamp goes out, they are incapable of giving off light, only heat.