August 5, 2011 4 Comments
I am uncomfortable with graven images of Jesus.
This was amplified when I saw someone post a photo of Jesus writing on a MacBook on facebook. My first thought is that it’s rather blasphemous, and disrespectful being posted a week after Easter had just occurred. Excusing the fact that Jesus would never operate on an overpriced wannabe-hipster creation , the image of Jesus depicted makes me uncomfortable. I’m not entirely convinced what exactly it is, but there is something in my gut that doesn’t feel right.
This is not a new debate, with the Byzantine church arguing about this exact thing, whether Christians should revere symbols in what was known as the Iconoclastic Controversy between the mid-8th century and the mid-9th century. Where most believers tended to revere icons, but many political and religious leaders sought their destruction because of the veneration being a form of idolatry.
This disagreement resulted in the image of Christ commanded to be taken down in 726 by Byzantine Emperor Leo III from the Chalke gate of the imperial palace. However, it was restored after much debate during a council meeting in Nicaea in 787, with greater restrictions on how they were used. For example, they could not stand out unnecessarily, and had to be painted flat where no features which stood out.
From this controversy, we know that what was distinguished further by theologians was a distinction between proskynesis and latreia, that is the difference between veneration and reverence which was paid to religious figures, and adoration which was owed to God alone respectively.
Of course in the Old Testament there was the commandment to the Israelites that:
““You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Exodus 20:4 (English Standard Version)
The assertion here that worshipping God through images is forbidden, and the application that we see through Scripture was that the Israelites took this to mean: no images whatsoever as a subject of worship. In fact, the Amish still take this command extremely seriously, and so much so that they do not allow to have their photographs taken, in the extreme case that become an idol.
The principle behind this was that the tangible form of God is not a part of his nature, He is completely spirit. It is a manipulation of the truth to create a form from a formless God “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” Romans 1:25 (English Standard Version) The notion of a physical form is taken to comic extreme in the Apocrypha, with the Jeremiah in his letter musing that, “[Idols] do not notice when their faces have been blackened by the smoke of the temple. Bats, swallows, and birds alight on their bodies and heads; and so do cats. From this you will know that they are not gods; so do not fear them. (Letter of Jeremiah 20-22)
So, if we transfer this to a New Testament context, if Jesus is fully God, and a manifestation of God as a fully bodily man. How does that impact how we approach graven images?
If Jesus is physical, then should we react to a physical imitation of Him and what he has done? I see this in many a Catholic churches, with the stained glass giving stories and illustrating what is contained within the Scriptures. In many ways, I heard this aided the illiterate in the church in ages past, where people did not have the ability to read, and they could learn about the Gospel through these pictures. Then again, it could be argued as to who was the cause of the lack of reading and writing ability…*cough* Pope *cough*
How about when the physical medium becomes what is the subject of worship? For example, many people come to see the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo – and arguably, less have come to admire the stories that are embedded within these images, but more so the medium: the artistry.
Nevertheless, I think my argument for the abolition of iconography in the church is that our memory of Jesus is spiritual, not physical.
Recently we had an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was a big earthquake, and occuring a few month after a devastating earthquake a few months prior, this one brought greater destruction to already damaged buildings. Of a multitude of buildings damaged, the central cathedral was damaged in the quake – the main spire falling to the ground. Now, there was a lot of debate, one voice of whom was the loudest argued that the spire should be put up immediately and that it is a representation of the Christchurch people. This is true, there is no more iconic building in Christchurch than the Christ’s Cathedral. But the cathedral has two forms of memory: there is the brick and mortar that stands, and the spiritual memories. And therefore, what is history if it is not embodied within people, buildings themselves are only of secondary importance.
The other example is the World Trade Center destroyed by Al Qaeda. America did not die that day when the buildings fell, the hearts may have grown weaker but essentially our ideas and ideals of society still remain in their place. People have their own ideas of what the World Trade Centre meant to them, and no one can change those. Our heritage is kept within human hearts, and the legacy of Jesus carries on through the Holy Spirit and not through images.
Our knowledge is not embedded within what we can see in the images of Jesus, but they are only influences of what Jesus means to us. If our identity of Jesus is embedded beyond what is essentially an abstract representation of the person, they it has gone off the tracks. How effective the image of Jesus operating the Macbook is built into the correlation of goodness and the person of Jesus. This is where it falls, only one aspect of the person is displayed through this, if we are using images, then they must show the complete person. This is impossible through images, as they are merely 2dimensional representations. There will never be an accurate means of representing Jesus in print, because humans are three-dimensional creatures, and Jesus more.
Limits to iconography and semiotics lead to a packaged idea of Jesus. What can fit within a page is never enough to describe a person as important as Jesus to the Christians. For this exact reason, I believe that God will never be embodied in an image, but He is indeed a living and alive today.