Friday, October 26, 2007

Icons

I don't like labels when they become an excuse for rejecting other people and their views without thinking about them, which they often are. But sometimes labels are useful because they identify certain common characteristics. For example, my background is strongly conservative evangelical, and us conservative evangelicals are just about starting to realise that we don't have to overreact against what some Roman Catholics believed in the 1500s any more.

One of the aspects of old Roman Catholic culture that we reacted strongly against was the use of images - it's pretty clear that some of what they did went much too far towards idolatry, and it's also pretty clear that some of the response has led to some evangelicals being more theoretical and anti-visual than Jesus (for example) was.

One thing that struck me when I started discussing the issue of icons with Orthodox people was that some of their justifications seemed fine. For example, it is obvious that in Christian doctrine, Jesus is God, and Jesus was visible. Therefore, if someone had taken a photo of Jesus, the result would be an accurate (but by no means exhaustive) picture of God. (It's just as well no-one did, otherwise we'd probably be worshipping the picture or anyone who looked vaguely like it.) And then you get to thinking about interesting questions such as "What does the Incarnation mean for the prohibition of images?"

You also get use of icons which seems to be quite similar to the later Western phenomenon of Christian biography - icons as a kind of devotional biography for a non-literate culture, leading to a focus on God because of the life of the saint involved.

Of course, there's plenty of unhelpful stuff associated with icons too. For example, the icon pictured is Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity. It's meant to have all kinds of deep significance. But to my (horribly uncultured) mind, its main significance is that it makes the Trinity look like three women with dodgy necks. That suggests that maybe Rublev had been reading too much Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory of Nyssa was a famous theologian and bishop in the late 300s AD, who argued that the reason his understanding of the Trinity didn't imply that there were three gods was that actually it was incorrect to say "three men" because all men had the same essence.

In other words, I am asserting that Rublev emphasises the threeness too much at the expense of the oneness of the Trinity, and that for me at least that makes it difficult to appreciate the other clever bits of significance in the icon. [It's worth adding of course that lots of people can and do find Rublev's icon helpful, but the use of imagery often introduces unwanted ambiguities, which some people then see as the main point.]

Taking the other side for a moment, consider this argument. If in your church, over on a side wall, there was a little photo of Jim Elliot, (or Luther, or Calvin) with a five line biography underneath and something saying "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose", (or equivalent), with no candles or kneeling or kissing or anything, would you think that was potentially helpful? Probably, yes. Would I see anything objectionable in it? Probably not, no. Certainly as a kid, I'd have found it interesting and thought provoking.

If you accept the Jim Elliot / Luther / Calvin example, the issue over use of images isn't a black-and-white one. Instead it's a question of how best to use images in worship. How do we work with a heavily visual culture, avoiding the danger that says that God isn't concerned with the physical, yet at the same time avoid the danger of idolatry? That's a better question...

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