What do you do in a world that is awash with images and yet denies the very power of those images in our lives? It is possible to live in a make-believe world in which all Christians have to do is react to negative and improper images, leaving the Church with a “Church-lady” image that everything out there is simply of “Satan.” This is not an answer to the problems posed by images but simply an avoidance of the issue. For at stake for Christians is the very nature of images themselves, the notion of Beauty, and the relationship of God to the vast landscape of our culture. Christianity cannot ignore images and their power (particularly in our modern world) nor can it ignore the Tradition of images as it has existed in the historic Church (unless you really want to re-invent the wheel).
A single image can have an enormous impact on our culture – though it will doubtless have stiff competition. The utter inundation of our lives by images will have yet another impact on our lives, regardless of competition. Whatever else may be true, the Church cannot stand idly by and say nothing about images unless it is content to ignore the realities of our modern life.
There are several questions worth answering with regard to images:
1. What is the relationship of the image to reality?
2. What is the relationship of the image to propaganda?
3. What is the role of images in Christianity?
4. What images should play the dominant role in my life?
First – what is the relationship of image to reality? This is a significant question, particularly in our digital age. A picture may be an accurate depiction of reality or indiscernibly altered to fit someone else’s agenda. This is increasingly complex and will only become moreso. We are likely in the future to relate more and more to digital reality and less and less to things as they are. In this we must be wise as serpents and meek as doves.
Second – we should assume that images in our modern context have much to do with propaganda. American’s who assume that their news in unfiltered and largely accurate would do well to watch news from elsewhere in the world. Our news has a slant and a bias as does the news from everywhere. We should not be so foolish as to assume that a picture necessarily gives us reality.
Third – the role of images in Christianity. This is by far the most important point, it seems to me. A modern Christianity which denies the role of images in the Christian faith is an unarmed and uninformed Christianity. Images are not optional and may not be doctrinally dismissed. They are everywhere present in our world. The question is what are we to make of them? In the Eastern Church, there is a defined role of what images are and how they should act in our lives. Their content is controlled by conciliar doctrine (though there are many exceptions to this) and the honor which we give them is carefully defined so that we know the difference between honoring something and rendering worship (this, by the way, is not so clear in our image driven culture – what does a young man mean when he places a poster of a nearly unclad woman on the wall of his bedroom?).
In essence, the Orthodox Church declared in its dogmatic pronouncements on holy images: “Images do with color, what Scripture does with words.” A properly executed icon should do for us precisely what Scripture does. It should point us beyond itself and towards the heavenly reality which it means to convey. Scripture, as compared to the cacophony of words is easily the more edifying. By the same token, properly rendered images of saints, angels, Christ and His mother, have a salutary effect on the soul, lifting it to God and the contemplation of heavenly things. Indeed, one of the functions of a proper relationship to icons is to teach us how to relate the everything around us – for everything, in some way, points beyond itself. The depth of creation takes us well below (and above) its surface.
The fourth question is easily answered: holy images should play the dominant role in my life. If my consciousness is filled with the images that are being sold by the media, then I should not be surprised at the anxiety and anger which fills my soul. The images of the mass media are geared towards your passions and mean to engage you on precisely that level.
In a contrary way, the images of the Church, particularly the Holy Icons, do not engage the passions, but the very heart of who we are, offering us images of salvation – windows to heaven.
We live in a world that is filled with images. Only the most reclusive family could protect children from the images that often sully their precious minds. How important it is, then, to give their minds the images which God has set forth for us – images that do with color what Scripture does with words.