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.
How kind of you to take the time to write these words and place them on your blog! I thank God for you, Fr. Stephen! I really needed to read this.
That’s a very good point about the posters. When I was in high school and college, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to get and position the right band posters and what not so as to express my personality, but because of my iconoclastic upbringing, I would have thought it strange to put the same amount of care and effort into one’s icons.
We were created as visual beings and we pervieve the physical world for the most part though our eyes. It’s up to us to use vision wisely.
Father, your post brought to mind the photo of the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima. As a former Marine and proud US citizen this photo has layers upon layers of meaning, and sadly not all positive ones. But the photo seems to be part of our consciousness (at least I hope it is). As an extremely amateur aphotographer and former newspaper report I have seen how messages can be manipulated by and through images. Your advise is well taken, photos are not necessarily reality. Thank you Father for such an insightful and instructive posting.
A couple of years ago, my parish mounted a campaign to cover the walls of the church with icons. It met with some stiff opposition, not the least of whom was my own husband. I finally convinced him to contribute three, but I know he feels strongly that that money would be better spent caring for the poor. While I don’t dispute the importance of caring for the poor, there are a *lot* of people doing that. Not so many doing what you have described. I e-mailed this post to my husband with the note that “this was the best description I have ever read of why it was important to contribute those icons.”
He isn’t Orthodox. I hope this will help change his mind.
I felt very reluctant to read this post today, because just a few days ago I took down all the posters and pictures, gradated from and moving away from UT.
I was very generous with the thumb tacks these past two years and tacked up almost every memoir, picture or memorable scrap in addition to my little icon corner.
To give your note some representation: This time the room really did feel emptier and I was ever more thankful for the memories.
No, I didn’t have an unclad woman, but I couldn’t help but ponder about what he meant when you brought it up. It could be so many things: probably hormones, but maybe deeper it could even be a symbol of life and inner desire for love and unity in marriage – a symbol that had been mangled to the point of a scantily clad pin-up… We can’t procreate with our clothes on, however non-kosher that may sound.
Thank you for another impactful post!
apropos of point three, does Hebrews 8:5, “they serve a shadow and copy of heavenly things” relate to the question of icons?
Yes, I think it does. At least two major Church Fathers (Ambrose and Maximus the Confessor) make this distinction: the Old Testament is shadow, the New Testament is image (ikon), and the eschaton (the age to come) is the Truth. This in every case we are seeing the Truth, whether in shadow or in image – but all things point to Christ in His fullness, for He is the Truth.
Thanks! That’s a powerful observation.
“A couple of years ago, my parish mounted a campaign to cover the walls of the church with icons. It met with some stiff opposition, not the least of whom was my own husband. I finally convinced him to contribute three, but I know he feels strongly that that money would be better spent caring for the poor.”
I have been reading “Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution” by Vera Shevzov recently. In the book she mentions that in pre-Communist Russia the parishioners generally preferred to beautifying their local churches to helping the poor (which was felt to be a job for village leaders). Thus, the priests often had to deliver sermons telling people that there were other important means of sacrificing for God and doing His work.
I think there needs to be a balance between the two things (obviously). On the one hand, if you attempt to aid every poor person before building a church, you’ll never build your church, and what’s more, without a church building, the faith will wither and after a generation there will be no one left to help the poor. On the other hand, a gold plated church that neglects the poor, the naked, the imprisoned, etc. is a “whitewashed tomb.” These two prerogatives need to be balanced in their concrete manifestation by prayer and the direction of the Holy Spirit. That said, I think in general today that Orthodoxy in America is so small, that our impact on charity in America can be only slight, but by building churches that can serve as a beacon to the future generations we can lay the groundwork for greater accomplishments later. So, I think that for now a slightly greater emphasis on church building than public charity is permissible, though of course, public charity must not be entirely neglected.