September 1st, 2012
11:08 AM ET

My Take: Give me Bali's empty chair over Eastwood's

An empty chair in Bali.

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

When I went to Bali a few years ago, I didn’t go, like most tourists, for the beaches or, like Elizabeth Gilbert, for love. I went for the religion. I wanted to learn something about the unique brand of Hinduism practiced there.

Balinese Hinduism differs from Indian Hinduism in many ways. For example, in Balinese temples there are often no images of God. But for me the most arresting religious image I encountered was the empty chair.

I saw this chair, typically crafted of stone, everywhere in Bali—on streetcorners and mountaintops, and in households and rice fields. It is a shrine to Ida Sanghyang Widhi, the High God to Balinese Hindus. And it symbolizes, among other things, the indescribability of the divine.

Historians say this icon was brought to Bali in the sixteenth century from Java. Religious Studies scholars see some Buddhist influence here, which would not be surprising since Buddhism thrives throughout the Indonesian archipelago that encompasses Bali.

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I saw the empty chair as an invitation—an invitation to reckon with God on your own terms and in your own way. I also saw it as an elegant refusal—a refusal to reduce God to simplistic terms we can understand.

Clint Eastwood has now turned “the empty chair” into a meme of a very different sort. In his speech on Thursday at the Republican National Convention, he argued with an invisible Barack Obama in an empty chair, drawing applause from the audience but upstaging Mitt Romney in the process.

What struck me as I saw this performance was how different Eastwood’s use of the empty chair was from how people use it in Bali.

In Bali, to stand in front of the empty chair is to reckon with your limits, and particularly with what you don’t know. But Eastwood and those who applauded him were driven by hubris, not humility. They claimed to know what Obama would say if he were in fact sitting in that chair, and of course the words they put in his mouth (including profanities) were words of their choosing, not his.

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My point is not that Obama is a God and should be treated with the reverence of one. Far from it. Obama is a human being, and like every human being he has made mistakes.

My point is that, even as religion has moved to the center of American political life, humility has moved to the periphery.

One of the functions of religion has traditionally been to remind us of our limits: we are sinners, and only God is God; we see through a glass darkly, and only God sees face to face. But we have turned that function off.

Today’s political religion puts human beings above God. It turns God into a pawn in our political chess games, brazenly enlisting God's support for our particular policies on tax rates or abortion or the war in Afghanistan.

Once you have accustomed yourself to putting words in the mouth of God, it is pretty easy to start putting words in the mouths of your political opponents. You run not against the real Obama, his words and his actions, but against your own made up “invisible Obama.”

Instead of taking their cues from a Hollywood director, Republicans should follow the example of a great Republican, and perhaps the greatest American, Abraham Lincoln. In the face of a culture war that turned into the Civil War, Lincoln pleaded for a civil politics in both North and South. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said in his First Inaugural Address. “We must not be enemies.”

In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln humbly confessed his confusion over what God was doing in allowing the Civil War to drag on and take so many lives, only to conclude that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln’s political piety was a faith of the Balinese empty chair—a humble faith that knew its own limits and confessed its own confusion. I’ll take that over Eastwood’s variety any day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church and state • Hinduism • Mitt Romney • Politics • United States

soundoff (553 Responses)
  1. WeWereOnTheMoon

    Any religious text putts words in to Gods mouth, if God had problem with it, he'd come up with his own convention and a speach. I'm not trying to be a smart ass...it's just my own common sense.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • .

      You misunderstand.


      September 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  2. Paul B. Huntington III

    I love licking other guy's buttholes.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  3. CT

    STEVE you idiot of course he's not talking about your chair. BTW tell your empty chair to chill out with the rhetoric

    When Giffords was shot in the head...democrat leaders were blaming Rush and Palin for the rhetoric.

    However, within months Democratic leaders were calling a group of people that disagreed with them

    Terrorists – Biden
    The Enemy- Obama
    "Hostage takers" Pelosi
    "Holding a gun to the heads of Americans" Ried.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  4. bill.x

    Lincoln was a great man and president. I can see why a modern day republican like you whose principles are guided by hate and repressive governance would want to disavow Lincoln as a republican and man. I know he would have cared less what you thought of his politics – as we know and think of them today.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  5. BlatantAtheist

    "I also saw it as an elegant refusal—a refusal to reduce God to simplistic terms we can understand."

    If they are terms we cannot understand, then how can one believe?
    If they are terms we cannot understand, then _what_ is it that one believes?
    As time marches forward, god becomes more abstract in the face of Science, such that the empty chair may have different analogies today; it is simply a reference for the temple of the mind and whatever one may decide to seat upon it. Or, to put it frankly, there is no god except for that illusion which you seat inside your brain. Perhaps born from how one's ego plays on their upbringing and environment.

    It is through this abstraction that people try to keep the illusion of god relevant.
    It is not simply a refusal to "reduce God to simplistic terms we can understand".

    September 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  6. knucklehead

    Too speak of American Christianity and "humility" in the same breath is quite a stretch...

    Republican bible thumpers would do well to look into Mark Twain's thoughts on patriotism and religion...

    September 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  7. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    Thank you, Stephen Prothero. I face the empty chair every day. Is it empty because God does not choose to sit with us, or is it empty because emptiness is all there is to God?

    September 1, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      Well, we know from the Aurora shootings article, that Steve is a non-believer. So, I do like this article. The "empty chair", is one hell of a lot better that one filled with the likes of Benedict, or any of the other Western nonsense that passas for religion these days. Actually the Romans also have a "sede vacante", (the period of the empty chair), between popes, but they fill it with a human. Too bad. Oh well. Surfs up. Have a great weekend everyone ! Last chance to play, before school.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  8. chadwick

    This is a silly article that makes Eastwood's satirical speech look completely sane in comparison!

    September 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • chadwick

      But then again, I look pretty silly making such a dumb comment when I have no authority backing me whatsoever. You know us republitards...we can't help but attack people. That's what the GOP party is all about. Attacking, humiliating, belittling and ruining this country.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • knucklehead

      You left out close-mindedness and a leaning towards Fascism. It all originates from your deep seated fear of the other.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Chris

      I agree. What an idiotic article. I used an empty chair to reach something in the cupboard the other day. I wonder what this writer would have made of that.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  9. Lou Bourbon

    A couple of things...

    As a scholar of religion myself, I think it's a far cry to compare the humorous skit Clint Eastwood performed as a nod to the spiritual empty chair in Bali. It makes for an easy way to demean someone for the disrespect of a religious idea but I doubt this is what Eastwood had in mind. Playing to an audience who knew him as the gutter-mouthed Harry Callahan, I believe he alluded to his professional past and toone of his most recognizable characters in a way that was light-hearted and humorous to an audience that HE PLAYED WELL. ASSUMING that he was disrespecting a religion of Bali, by your own argument, is as bad as trying to put words into the mouths of either God, or others. I think one of the MAIN points you missed while listening, in what seems to be a fairly non-objective fashion, was that the words he assumed used by Obama, we're non specific fluff. Not appreciating the guy's political stance is one thing but acknowledging esoteric religious practices as a platform for criticism of a speech and light-hearted skit is simply grasping at "straws".

    Second, as a scholar who enjoys studying American history, particularly of Presidents and especially Lincoln, I'd have a hard time calling him a GREAT Republican. Republican in name ALONE, he headed the party at a time when MANY of the ideas of the parties were flip-flopped from what they are today. His strong support for a large and over-seeing Federal Government is all one needs to know that he certainly wasn't conservative as far as political practices go. Knowing that he oversaw the deaths of nearly a 5th of the American population in our bloodiest war ever over his heavy handed Federalist approach and complete refusal to acknowledge the practical application of Philosophical principles of his own Founders makes this man ANYTHING but Great. A serious study of the man paints him out to be a great speaker and hard worker but a bumbling philosophical fool who made MANY of our country's WORST decisions as leader. Decisions culminating in his own death which led to the raping and oppression of the land that he claimed to love through birth. I would guess that the only thing that could have made him even GREATER of a President in the eyes of many who view him through historical and political blinders is if we could have actually COMPLETED the task of sending all former slaves back to Africa into the country of Linconia (now Liberia). Please OPEN you political history books!

    Finally...for the few times that Republican's have taken their cues from Hollywood Stars (Apparently you missed the part of the speech where he too acknowledged that!), maybe your criticism of this should be focused on the other Political party in America who FAR TOO OFTEN take their politics from such great philosophers as Oprah Winfrey, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and large number of musicians and actors who seem to be engaged in the practice of finding out who wide and loud their political mouths can be expanded...but that would be acknowledging your own shortcomings and as a "respected" religious scholar...(you know, the kind that emulates humility and compassion)...you seem to be FAR too occupied with pointing out the (incorrectly) presumed faults of others. Probably need to take a page from your own book.

    Lou Bourbon Jr.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Well thought out and said. Thank you Lou.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • knucklehead

      Scholar? You? I think not...

      September 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • knucklehead

      Thought you were going to mention Reagan, but he wasn't quite a "star"...

      September 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • bill.x

      Lincoln was a great man and president. I can see why a modern day republican like you whose principles are guided by hate and repressive governance would want to disavow Lincoln as a republican and man. I know he would have cared less what you thought of his politics – as we know and think of them today.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      What an idiot. You missed the point. Thanks for the rant, Bourbon. Eastwood made a fool of himself. If they knew what he was going to pull, they would NEVER have allowed it. We now know, he asked for the chair, as a prop, at the very last moment. They spent all day Friday, "explaining" the embarrassment. It will never happen again. Romney's advisers were apoplectic. Prothero was simply pointing to two different empty chairs.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • reader

      i i think you completely missed the point of the article. republicans, as it was in Lincolns day, maybe its time for your party to make some major changes. oh i know, here is an idea, how bout we find you a nice little cozy spot on the coast of Africa that you can have all to yourselves. we'll call it "the lone star republic, take 2"

      September 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • donquijote2

      As "a scholar" you should have probably read this article more carefully. At no time did the author accuse Eastwood of disrespecting the Bali religion. The only point he was trying to make is that it is pretentious to claim to know the mind
      of God as it is pretentious to know what another person would answer to your questions in his absence. That if you
      are accustomed to doing the first, it is easy to do the second and therefore misjudge another person based on our own prejudices.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Tim Weichert

      Negative Lou, you're also mistaken in assuming that the author was trying to equate the use of the empty chair in Bali religion to how Eastwood used it. The author was saying that he'd go with the Bali's use rather than Eastwood's use, and I agree!! Also, it doesn't matter that Eastwood meant it in jest. It's really a stupid think to do to have a debate with an imaginary opponent. Really? Seriously? Come on, can't the GOP do better than that?

      As for Lincoln, I fell that he's one of the greatest presidents who we ever had, and this will never change. He led this country through a terrible event (Civil War), and, even though he made mistakes like every other living human being, he was on the right side of history. I don't care if you don't agree with me. The US is ONE COUNTRY, and the Federal government TAKES PRIORITY!!! I'm glad that the Union side one and that the Confederacy lost. I don't understand what is with you conservative people. You continue to support a platform that lent itself to slave ownership and rebellion in the 1800s. Time to get with modern times and become a Democrat. BTW: Lincoln was a "Republican" at the time, but I see him as being what is not a Democrat. The parties' platforms flip-flopped between then and now.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • Lou Bourbon Sr > Lou Bourbon Jr

      true story

      September 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Lou Bourbon

      "Clint Eastwood has now turned “the empty chair” into a meme of a very different sort."

      Maybe YOU should read that article again Don Quijote2.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Lou Bourbon

      "Clint Eastwood has now turned “the empty chair” into a meme of a very different sort. "

      Same to Mr Weichert.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • thegadfly

      Dear Scholar of Religion: I find it amusing that you can be so knowledgeable of religion, history, and politics, and still miss the point of the present article. Prothero did not compare Eastwood's empty chair to Bali's empty chair. He CONTRASTED them. And as he so well pointed out, humility seems all but absent from American religious conservatism. You might even call it blasphemous. I do.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • Lou Bourbon

      Actually he both compared and contrasted them. It's hard to do one if you aren't doing the other. Clearly there is a comparison...in order for you to contrast. I do give way to your point though. I should have mentioned the word CONTRAST in order to satisfy your overly aggressive criticism of syntax. There are also a few spelling mistakes, a result of bad typing skills...maybe you can harp on those as well.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Mack

      Lou, I am not surprised that anyone who would chastise Lincoln for straying too far from the current sensibilities of today's GOP, rather than the other way around, would not be able to understand this article. However by attributing false notions to the author, which the author himself did not convey, demonstrates beautifully the actual point the author was trying to make. Also, if you would look up the term "meme" and are able to grasp the concept it would go a long way to help you to realize that the author was not "ASSUMING that he [Eastwood] was disrespecting a religion of Bali". He was actually referring to the use of an empty chair as a device for communication of a particular message.

      September 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  10. Cageeey

    Conversation with God why nobody builds that alone... Three cloning scientists finally figure out how to create man from the dust of the earth and went to God to tell him his services were no longer needed. God saw them coming and said, "Hello my children, so what have you been doing with the gifts of life and intelligence I gave you." The scientists replied that they can now create man from the dust of the earth and God was no longer needed. God smiled and said, "I understand and I am happy you figured it out but sad that you no longer want my help. Before I go please show me how you do it." The scientists agreed and took out a vial to collect some dust from the ground when God stopped them, " Stop right there!" he said. "Go find your own dust".

    I am quite surprised that out of all of these good Christians that claim to build that on their own, no one has been humble enough to acknowledge God's help. Even athletes who have accomplished incredible individual feats usually thank God

    September 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Cynthia L.

      That was an excellent story. Made my day.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  11. twinmomcville

    The author is confusing two separate themes, probably because he is an Obama supporter and like many of the liberal crowd, can't stand the idea that Eastwood's particular style of criticism was not only funny and effective, but it hit the nail sqaure on the head.
    He makes a huge leap in trying to portray Eastwood as trying to put words in the mouth of God. That is the author's own fantasy and nothing could be further from the truth.
    If he wants to talk irreverance and disrespect for religious values, look nowhere else but Obama himself. His intolerance of Christians and Christian values is what will be his downfall.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • seeingclearer

      So twin...you think that just because the author is an Obama supporter, he's wrong. Hmmmm...well there is always Fox news for you if you are that far right...or I mean....wrong.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • pastmorm

      Wow twin, you're really one of those crazy conspiracy theory gits huh? I mean really. Do you think a President of the United States would be vetted if he weren't christian? If you do, then you are against your ENTIRE government – bother parties and you need to move to the middle east where your form of Theocracy is readily accepted.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Mack

      You missed the point of the article completely. Ironically however, you completely make the authors point for him. Lol! The Obama the Republicans talk about can only be seen by them and is invisible to the rest of us whose minds are not so easily manipulated. Ask most any republican pundit and they will tell you with conviction exactly what is in the heart, soul and mind of Obama and exactly the meaning of what he does and why he does it. They will tell you that he is an evil godless socialist liberal sent here by Satan himself, to destroy all that is good in America. Whatever the conservatives and Republicans are hopped or huffing on, please get off of it. Because whatever it may be, that is what is destroying America.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  12. JM


    God cannot be mocked but Republicans definitely are under the delusion that they speak for Him.

    The only people Jesus criticized were people who acted exactly as they are acting.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  13. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  14. Reality

    And "Prof" Stevie P again "sits" in judgement but who cares what he professes since he refuses to be honest about his own beliefs, something all religious "experts" should do before pontificating.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  15. Layne

    Good article. I hadn't heard of this Bali tradition before.

    Your Lincoln quote reminded me of another one, paraphrased here because I'm too lazy to bother looking it up. When asked if God was on the North's side during the Civil War, Lincoln replied "I am more concerned whether we are on His side, than He on ours."

    September 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  16. scott

    Move to Bali then where you can revel in the "elegant refusal".

    September 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • scott

      On the other hand, I may move to Bali because there are muslims there and I'm a closet muslim. Whew, it feels so good to finally be out about that!

      September 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • oy

      So because someone calls Clint out on his ridiculousness, you tell him to move to Bali?

      September 1, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  17. Dan Crocker

    Although I profess to be a good christian, I'm really on here to pray away the gay. It's hard being gay in such a hateful world and I wish that I didn't have to be so hateful in return, but attacking people and belittling makes me feel like a bigger man and it's also what I'm taught to do at church. Please forgive me for being so ignorant and mean.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  18. scott

    WOW. What a stretch to turn Eastwoods speech into religious criicism of Romney and the GOP.

    Why not do a piece on how Reverend Wirght was really just taken out of context.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Dan Crocker

      Actually scott, I thought the article was beautiful and well written. Just because you are a mindless republican, doesn't mean the rest of us have to be as well.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Layne

      An old white male, having a one-way dialog with a version of President Obama that only exists in his own imagination? Tell me truthfully if you don't see at least some irony in that, Scott.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Venturer

      Scott, if you want to understand Rev.Wright don't take remarks out of context, but get the whole message he tries to convey from his experiences in America.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • JM

      Um, how many white 'pastors' over the years have preached nothing but racist hate?

      Re: 'the chair', as Jon Stewart put it: everything finally makes sense...Republicans see a Barack Obama that no one else sees.

      There's nothing Christ-like about hate, racism and lies.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  19. LouAZ

    Love is the morning and the evening star. – Elmer Gantry

    September 1, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      "I love the night life,
      I got to boogie,
      on the disco ah'round oh yea"
      – Alicia Bridges 1978

      September 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  20. YummyWords

    I viewed the empty chair that Eastwood was speaking to as being "Obama's empty promises" he has made and not fulfilled. The chair is empty, meaning Obama is not there as he is not here for the country and for the PEOPLE of the United States... I think this is also what Eastwood wanted to portray. I don't necessarily think Romney will do any better, but I hope he does if he is elected, BUT Eastwood is right about, "if someone is not doing a good job, then it's time to move on and see if someone else can do better", that's a fact, but like I said, not saying Romney or anyone else is going to do better, but it's worth a shot in a different direction instead of keeping the same guy in office...

    September 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • LouAZ

      " a shot in a different direction " – yea WAR with IRAN ! Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching off to war . . .

      September 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • YummyWords

      I really think the U.S. should start worrying about ourselves and not the Middle East or elsewhere. Yeah, we need to keep an eye on others (we obviously wouldn't want "Red Dawn" to occur, but enough with all the war crap. We have enough problems in the U.S. that get put on the back burner constantly.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • mizh

      I think it made Eastwood look like a doddering old fool who's losing it. Just my opinion, mind you...

      September 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • oy

      But he HAS fulfilled most of his promises! Look it up! If he hasn't fulfilled some, it's precisely b/c of the GOP Congress and Blue Dog Dems! Google "Obama promises kept". It's so simple. Why keep repeating the same lie?
      As far as taking things in a different direction: for the love of god, WHY? Do you actually yearn for the Bush years? Because that's what you'll get with RMoney and Pinocchio! In spades!

      September 1, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Everyman

      Congress isn't doing a good job either. Clint, how about we show them the door as well?

      September 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • donquijote2

      I agree with the idea that if someone is not doing a good job you get rid of them. Why don't we then vote out every person in congress? It has been congress and in particular the house of representatives that have everything in their power to obstruct any kind of progress. Obama's major mistake was to try to compromise and reason with this herd of fanatics who are only interested in being reelected and regaining power. The democrats are almost as bad. We should have term limits for congress!

      September 1, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
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