Beauty and Iconoclasm – Where We Find God

Every human being is an icon of God…so iconoclasm is a much larger matter than smashing statues and such. It also includes the hatred of others and the injustice that grinds them into the dust. The quiet iconoclasm of poverty and the like are insidious in that they’re so quiet they look like an act of nature. Iconoclasm can only be overcome through love, the love of the beauty of the image of God wherever it is found.”  – from a comment I posted on social media this morning.

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Scenes of statues toppling and pictures of defaced public spaces can be disturbing. Sometimes, they can be exhilarating. I recall watching statues of Lenin and Stalin fall during the collapse of the various Communist states. It felt like freedom. I also recall my dismay during my first trip to Greece where nearly every public wall and monument (Church and otherwise) is covered in graffiti. There is an instinct at work surrounding images (both their making and their destruction) – one that is profoundly religious in nature. As such, it has the capacity to save us or to destroy us. But make no mistake – it is filled with power.

Not all Christians care for icons. Some positively despise them. But none of them can deny the power of the image (icon) itself. “Image” is the word used to describe the very act of human creation. We are created according to the “image and likeness” of God. No other statement enshrines the dignity and true worth of human beings in such an inarguable manner. It puts a stamp of ultimacy on our very existence. Not only are we described as having been created in the image of God, but our salvation itself is portrayed as a return to the fullness of that image as we behold the face of Christ.

But we are also “smashers” (iconoclasts). When Rome defeated Carthage in 146 BC, it leveled the city. Some say that they even plowed the ground and sowed it with salt, consigning the space to oblivion. In 70 A.D. Rome destroyed Jerusalem, along with its temple. Today, in order to reach the streets of Jerusalem upon which Jesus walked, you have to dig deep underground – what stands on top represents much later construction. Such actions seem to have a role of “catharsis” or “cleansing,” in which an enemy is not only defeated but erased. Who hasn’t wanted to do such a thing to the memory of a hurt that haunts? We hear it echoed in St. Paul’s prayer that “God will speedily crush down Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). We not only want Satan to be defeated – we want him erased.

We have to recognize both impulses within us (the love of icons and their smashing) to come to grips with the whole of who we are meant to be. At its deepest level, we do not understand icons until we understand beauty and its crucial role in our existence. The love of beauty and our desire for it are the most fundamental parts of our being. This is particularly true if we use the word “beauty” in the fullest sense of its meaning. Beauty encompasses being and truth as well. It is God’s word for His creation (usually translated as “good,” the word in Scriptures also means “beautiful”). That which is beautiful and good is reflective (iconic) of the God who created it. All of creation longs for union with this Beauty and groans for it to be made manifest.

In the life of the Church, the making of icons begins early, possibly in its very beginning. Israel already made a careful use of images (some are prescribed for use in the Temple itself). St. Paul, and others following him, elevated a “theology of the image” into a central place in Christology and the doctrine of salvation. There were already hints of this theology in some of the writings of the Second Temple period. The fulfillment of the image of God in Christ allowed the veil to be torn away from that mystery and its clear form to be discerned.

Nevertheless, the drive towards iconoclasm has remained rooted in our hearts. Every sin against another human being is a form of iconoclasm. Violence is probably its most dangerous form, although every sin against another carries an element of violence within it (Matt. 5:21-22). We are experiencing an unprecedented display of public anger and iconoclasm in our cities and news cycles. Of course, the quiet iconoclasm of injustice has far deeper and long-lasting effects. The one does not justify the other. Injustice added to injustice only adds up to injustice. That we might understand it does not change its nature.

The Church’s witness to icons and their veneration is, ultimately, a witness to beauty. It is also a witness to the only path of salvation, both for individuals and the world as a whole. St. Augustine described the work of salvation as the “City of God.” And though we idealize the natural setting of a home in the wilderness, it is the image of a city that the Scriptures use to describe salvation. St. Paul writes:

“But our citizenship [“politeuma” πολίτευμα] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”(Philippians 3:20–21)

The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”).

It is the New Jerusalem that we await (Rev. 22:2), a “city whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). Cities require human relationships and exist well when the beauty and health of those relationships is foremost in its planning and execution. Cities whose inner being exists only for economic profit serve as images of a god, Mammon, and its people begin to resemble slaves.

The building of cities, in this highest sense of the word, is a construction of “city-ness,” an icon of the city that is to come. This is not a call for utopianism, but a recognition that there are holy patterns given to us that make for a greater wholeness in our lives. This is hard work. Iconoclasm and destruction are the work of a moment, driven by passion and the darkest places in our hearts. Anybody can smash. To make something beautiful takes care, love, and attention to detail. It is a work of holy living.

In the great wash of news stories of the past weeks, an image of beauty came across my desk that was encouraging. In Atlanta, scene of many racial tensions through the years, also the site of an egregious racial killing in recent days, there was a march on Juneteenth (a date marking the end of slavery). It was sponsored by One Race, an organization founded by black and white pastors in the Atlanta area back in 2017. They have been doing a slow work of common prayer, common discussions, and common understanding towards the healing of racial sins and the union of the faithful. They profess that only in Christ can such sins be overcome. On that day, some 15,000 faithful gathered for a peaceful march to lift up Christ and to profess their common faith and love for one another. It was encouraging because it was not simply a passion of the moment, but the fruit of three years of patient work, something that will likely continue for some time to come. When the news cycle easily leads toward despair, it is good to see so many knees that bow to Christ walking together and professing faith in the city whose builder and maker is God.

The opposite of iconoclasm is “iconodulia” (the honoring of icons). At its heart, iconodulia is the love of true beauty. This love is quite the opposite of the drive towards iconoclasm. Iconoclasm need love nothing: the will to destruction is entirely sufficient to provide motivation and energy. In the end, it might yield nothing more than nothing-at-all, an emptiness of fruitless effort that collapses back on itself. It is not life-giving. Iconodulia requires inward attention as well as outward responsibility. It is slow and requires patience. Some efforts of beauty can be so great that they survive for millennia and more. The beauty of Hagia Sophia (for example) continues not only in that single, striking building, but in the thousands of echoes that have shaped so many Orthodox temples since. It’s power lies in the fact that its beauty reaches beyond itself towards a greater Beauty that only God can build. As such, it is echoed in every element of beauty that we find in nature as well.

Such beauty requires people who live beautiful lives. They need neither wealth nor power, only the living icon of the Logos to be manifest in their being. It is the secret to Christian “civilization” – not an empire maintained by force of arms or economic power. Rather Christian civilization is the politeuma of the heavenly city that is continually reborn in the heart of every Baptism. That city is built in the heart. It is there that we repent and there that we forgive. It is there that we find within us the image of the city that God has already prepared for us.

36 comments:

  1. This is a very good lesson. Many people don’t understand this. Thank you Fr.

  2. Thank you Father – one of your very best. I am Chairman of the Board of our parish’s school – Hagia Sophia Classical Academy, getting ready to begin our 11th year. All classes in whatever subject are taught with the one goal of revealing Christ, the eternal Logos made flesh, filling all the world with His Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

  3. Just the message I surely needed today and for the rest of my life! Thank you!
    Yes indeed, Glory to God in all things!

  4. There is a lot going on in this post and it is hard for me to follow some of the ideas. For instance, there is much tradition within the Church not just involving creation but destruction—of heretical writings, pagan statues, and so on. It is a chore to find a book that doesn’t talk about destruction in some form or another: from Genesis to Revelation, all 4 Gospels, and almost every book in between it is a theme. A certain Desert Father (I don’t recall which) glued the pages of a pagan book together one by one. Canon 9 of the 7th Ecumenical Council calls for the surrendering of all heretical books, presumably not for safekeeping. And the making of an icon requires wood whose form is forever covered up, pigments which are often made through some kind of destructive process, etc. As with violence, I think there is a lot more nuance that can be easily lost if reality is broken up along creation/destruction lines in absence of other analogies and narratives. Thankfully, I also saw Christ referenced as the ultimate Beauty—I agree 100% with that.

    And that brings up erasure (or perhaps transfiguration), which we see not only in certain festivals and practices which were Christianized—from Europe to Alaska—but again in the very art of iconography, of [liturgical] baking, and of [liturgical] sewing, where the form of something is changed in a way that the original cannot be recovered. I think the solution is in the telos, the object becoming what it was always meant to be, but that still implies a loss of some sort, even if it is for the better. It certainly isn’t a modern form of progress, but neither is it a passive process with no destructive aspects. The “Let us make…our icon” of Genesis shows that iconodulia can indeed be this driving force for this transformation, not mere passionate anger.

    Onto erasure of people, that definitely brings some interesting questions to mind. But I think it is a whole different matter to talk about erasure of a human being vs erasure of some of works and sins. It has been a while since I’ve been around anyone who wanted Satan “gone” but unless the actions are separated from the being the icon is continually tarnished; there is much beauty in him but some kind of transformation and healing (which is as often an erasure of something added, like sickness, as it is a repair of something broken, like a bone) is needed. As far as I have studied and learned, it is a good thing to want erasure of the evil (actually, it is evil’s own definition and “telos”!) while saving the good.

    I’d like to hear more about cityness, too; I think there are so many Utopian schemes, as was mentioned, that it is a difficult conversation to even conceive of—but there is also the undeniable inbreaking of The Kingdom.

  5. Joseph B.T.
    I think that you might have a tendency to overthink this stuff. But, the article does not make a reductionist argument of iconoclasm/destruction/violence/bad and iconodule/construction/good. However, it does make the distinction between destruction (which is easy) versus construction which is difficult – particularly when done in accordance with the image. You could tear down everything in a minute and simply have nothing left. Tearing down pagan shrines, writings, etc., is certainly witnessed in the tradition (little t). But every pagan writing that we possess (and there are many) only exist because some monk, somewhere, copied them by hand. Pretty much nothing that we have predates about the 10th century. So, actually, we were not as destructive as we have been caricatured.

    But, had we only been destructive, and not icon/image/builders, we would have long-since perished.

  6. One thing about this latest surge of iconoclasm (in all of our hearts I fear) is the hatred of history. Not just in the obvious destruction of statues but in little things that have been going on for decades. I have things handed down in my family for over 100 years. Things of beauty as well as the family stories attached to them. No one wants them any longer…and it is not just me. My wife also has some things. They are old and have not use. New things are better. I think only my niece might want them. She is married to a man studying for the Orthodox priesthood.

    It makes my heart sad. But then I was watching a BBC mystery “Inspector Lynley Mysteries” In the first episode there is a beautiful old icon tri-fold that is on a shrine set up by the murdered character. It is just there, The icons of Jesus and St. Nicholas on the sides and what would be the Theotokos in the middle, except that was where the character had a photo of his late wife. Apparently, such icons show up here and there in the background of other episodes. Curious but wonderous too.

  7. Michael,
    As a much more mobile society, I think we do not “collect” things as readily. History requires a stability that we do not have as a culture. It’s ironic as I think about the present “remembrance” of the past. There was an interesting opinion piece in the NY Times today by a young black woman, in which she noted that “my body is a monument.” By that, she meant that a legacy of American slavery were the vast numbers of “black” citizens who are, in fact, descendants of slave owners who raped their slaves. We don’t speak much about this – but it’s fairly rare, even here in the South, to see black Americans who are not far lighter than Africans. It is this reality of slave/rape culture that was more than tolerated. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past. My mother’s family owned slaves – some were buried in the family graveyard. I know that my grandfather looked on the black families around his farm as “family,” and always wondered if there was more to that than I knew. The truth is – that America – especially that part of America who (like me) and our black population, have roots that date back into the slave period. We are one people – both by blood – and largely by culture. Our music(s) are blended, our foods are blended, etc. We are largely Anglo-African in every respect. But we don’t think like this. For one of the legacies bequeathed to us from our common ancestors was a binary/racist view of humanity that was a lie. These are my family – literally. I love history, but only honest history. Everything else is propaganda.

    My wife and I were rumaging around in a drawer at her parents’ home years back. We found a small pamphlet with a speech by “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, governor and senator from SC who was from the town where my wife lived as a child. The speech was from around 1900. He was bragging about how they stuffed the ballot-boxes in the election of 1876 (over 150 blacks were killed during that political campaign) and stole the election. He also expressed deep admiration for the apartheid system in South Africa as a model. It was the oddest thing to read – because it was so blatant in its racism. I had forgotten how proud some were of their mythology. He was one of the framers of the “Lost Cause” movement in the South.

    I lament riots and unlawful destruction of monuments – though I frankly see most of the monuments as dedicated to the myth of the Lost Cause rather than representations of history. As history goes, there were no monuments here in the South that noted the suffering of slavery or celebrated its ending. None. Only in the past half-dozen years has anything appeared.

    I believe that the legacy of our history is very painful and very much alive – not as memory, but as a living injustice. We need to fully embrace the whole of the story and find our way to true reconciliation in Christ. That, I think, is a possibility for many, particularly in that black Christianity in America has a lot of strength. I know that Orthodoxy in America has been strengthened by even the small influx of black members and clergy. You have noted how much there is for us to learn from their experience. We have been given an Apostleship to America. It needs to be an Apostleship to the whole of America. We’re blessed, for example, by the strong Native Orthodoxy in Alaska – how it helps shape the consciousness of the OCA. I pray that the God of truth will nurtured the fullness of our life together.

    God has purposed to gather together in one, all things in Christ Jesus. Slow, patient work.

  8. I have come to the realization that many of our current problems are rooted in the fact we don’t teach our true history, with all the warts and embarrassments.
    If we begin today to correct all the lies and half truths in text books and class curriculum it will take near a generation to undue the damage done. This is the reparations we owe our citizens today. It is a worthy goal that would take the efforts of legions of caring people from all ethnic backgrounds. Only by the grace of God might we attempt to do so.

  9. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed 22 September 1862 and went into effect on 1 January 1863. Juneteenth marks when the Union army general proclaimed all slaves in Texas were free in Galveston on 19 June 1865.

  10. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands”
    Rev 7:9
    Now that’s a beautiful image.

  11. Father, exactly. But destruction of things and memories is not the way is what I am saying.

  12. Michael,
    Yes. I understand. I am strangely sympathetic to those who have difficulty with some of our Confederate monuments – primarily in that I think they are arguably not “good faith” monuments, but represent a political statement that was a refusal to accept what happened. Had those monuments not also been accompanied with the Jim Crow laws, a better case could be made that they were no more than memorials. But, we made a century-long set of oppressive, unjust laws as an invisible memorial that accompanied them. We are being called to account for that. I would prefer that such an accounting be done by legal, political agreement. Smashing will likely only make things more bitter. We need healing as well as justice.

    In truth, the problems associated with an overly-militarized police and a justice system enforcing a very problematic “drug war” and such, are rather ubiquitous in America – it’s not actually a “Southern” problem. But the monuments in the South have been drawn into it under the wider issues. The integration of cultures in the South is, in my experience, far better in the South than elsewhere these days – though still not where it should be. Much of that integration has been based in a deeply-held common faith. Many of the Evangelical mega-churches are decidedly multi-racial – Pentecostalism as well. The language of Jesus is a common tongue here. Heck, even the Latinos have a large Evangelical and Pentecostal presence here. My neighborhood is quite diverse. But, I pray for healing and the binding up of many hearts – in the beauty of Christ.

  13. Father I always enjoy your writings on the theology of icons. There is so much depth of meaning. And such theology on the icons of Christ and His resurrection invites us to go ever deeper into the Beauty our own reality, in the image of Christ in us.

    I pray that the Holy Spirit runs through us as living water, to give solace, healing balm, love and alms to our neighbors.

    Aside, where was the picture taken? How amazingly beautiful is the iconostasis and the glimpse of the altar beyond!

  14. “What is striking to me is that iconoclasm has almost always accompanied revolutions. I suppose those who are destroying the old and replacing with the new have a certain drive to “cleanse” things. Thus during China’s Cultural Revolution, books, pictures, older faculty members, indeed a deeply terrifying array of unpredictable things and people became the objects of the movement’s iconoclasm. As in all of these revolutions – iconoclasm kills.”

    The above is a quote from Father’s post “The Smashers Are Back” from July, 2014.

    The division into races is a kind of iconoclasm. It should have zero support from anyone in the Church who venerates icons and yet it does. Unfortunately, the United States is a revolutionary culture intent from the beginning to “smash” the old way of doing things. I have long felt that our revolution was a continuation of the English Civil War.

  15. I am learning the most important icons I need to take heed and care of are the icons laid in the altar of my own heart, “where I meet God.” In the midst of outside events happening, I am realizing, how important it is that am I taking care of my own kheart’s altar laiden with icons? I must ask myself, who and what am I magnifying and venerating in my life? Is it the Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother? Is it His grace filled Saints? Is it my neighbor whom I am called to love, as well as my enemy I am called to forgive and to love? Or is it worldly cares and contentions, distractions, my ego, my flesh, sin, and things of this world? I am learning, how must I tend to the icons of my heart, taking down false idols, and putting up icons of Christ and His Kingdom in my prayer corner, where I meet God.

  16. Anon, definitely true but the external icons are just as important because without them it is easy to loose the sense of reality and community they bring. The presence of the greater unseen. I have a proto-icon of Matushka Olga Michael of Alaska. One day not long ago, I was looking at her and experienced an overflowing love that was both human and Divine. It drew me both beyond myself and connected me to something-someone both within and beyond myself. Poor description but best I can do.

  17. Michael,
    So true! External icons that embody beauty, truth, and goodness….a triple cord. The Church’s icons of wholeness…

  18. Father, I think one disconnect for me is that I never experienced the violence of Jim Crow. The only personal connection I have is from a family trip back from NYC in the early 60’s when I was in 9th grade. We stopped at a filling station in Nashville and I saw the two bathrooms: white and colored. The separation had only recently lost the force of law. It left me deeply confused. Still does. I asked my mother about it and she briefly explained but with deep sense of shame. I felt shame as well. I cannot imagine what actually living in that reality would do to people considering what a simple direct encounter with it did to me and my family. The rest of the trip home was not quite as fun as it had been.

    It is easy to intellectualize it to avoid the shame. Forgive me

  19. I guess I had a further thought…the external icons of the Church and the icons of Christ and His Kingdom laid in my heart are both the place of meeting God, because where both are present, here is a connection point with God. The heart opens to receive God at this connection point….

  20. “ The word “politeuma,” translated as “citizenship,” is formed from the word, “polis,” or “city.” Citizenship is the “place where we have our “city-ness”).”

    The city is also were we must practice “polite-ness” (in the sense of true harmony and refinement, not superficial niceness) among each other in order to thrive. (Etymologically, there is no connection between “polite” and “polis”—though if there were, that would have been a wonderful surprise.)

  21. I have felt a sense of ambivalence and “stiffness” towards icons since converting, but this really helped me realize the essential meaning of icons in the spiritual life, how they represent something very deep and beautiful if we have the eyes to see it. Lately I have felt like life has been conspiring to teach me to turn away from my habitual patter of fault-finding and to instead have an eye for what is good and true and beautiful. This whole time I feel like I have been infected with an iconoclastic spirit, with it’s pseudo-piety (“Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God”). It is a wretched and horrible way to live, let me tell you. I believe I am finally, FINALLY becoming an iconodule in spirit and truth. It only took 6 years of entering the Church after my Evangelical upbringing. Thank God, and thank you for continually catechizing me, Father Stephen.

  22. My wife and I attended the memorial service for a long time friend of hers that she met and became friends with in the gun club of which they both were a part, particularly the older weapons and the culture in which they were first used (pioneer and old west). Randy was a cowboy action shooter of some skill and a great story teller. He lived, as I learned, a traditional, even in some sense, an iconic life.

    He married his high school sweetheart right out of high school and loved her deeply the rest of his life. He had three children and 10 grandchildren who delighted in his story telling and called him Papa. He and his family lived in the same area in which they grew up: Methodist/Mennonite rural territory just northeast of Wichita. He was a life-long Methodist who worked as a plumber and AC man all of that time. He also was a member of the volunteer fire department for many years and took a turn on the city council as well as the board of the local nursing home. Not without significance was the fact that the man chosen to officially recount his life at the memorial service today is a very brown man. He looks Afro-American but Merry says he is of Hispanic ancestry. He is fully accepted and was obviously quite at home in the gathering were almost everyone else accept his children were quite white. Several dressed in old west dress. Not costumes BTW.

    The memorial service took place on the cowboy action shooting range the gun club uses and maintains. A surprisingly beautiful place, crafted and maintained with care. The 100 or so people who attended ranged in age from newborn to in their eighties perhaps 90s. Watching and listening combined with what Merry told me I can say that community seemed to form around him where ever he was. A healthy, vibrant community dedicated to serving God, helping each other and creating joy through work, song and story told and enacted dressed in meticulously recreated period garb.

    He was described without irony or boast as a “man’s man”. I think he was. Certainly, I feel stronger as a man after hearing of him than before I went. I went as Merry’s chauffeur and I am glad I did.

    The only sour note was that not one member of his family was allowed to be with him in the final weeks of his life because of the (expletive deleted) COVID restrictions. Not even his wife of over 45 years.

    Memory Eternal

    **Note my wife was a state champion black powder rifle shooter back in the day. Competed at the national level and the first female member of the gun club. What a woman!

  23. Two very uplifting and heartfelt comments. Thank you Sunny and Michael.
    May Randy’s memory be eternal.

    Sunny, that you have had this change of heart at a time when we are in the midst of escalating hostilities – iconoclasm – which began to fester after a call to cover our *faces* and distance ourselves from each other, is indeed a testimony to the goodness of God. A testimony to His very presence in these trying times, and in particular, to you.
    Thank you again for this much needed encouragement.

  24. Father

    As I have been reflecting on your article I have been reminded of Roger Scruton’s book “The Face of God” which was a book form of the Gifford Lectures he gave in 2010. I dug it out again and have been rereading. Recommended, in case you don’t know it.

    Here’s a summary of the chapters which gives a reasonably good sense of the themes. https://www.giffordlectures.org/books/face-god

    There are strong resonances with some of your thoughts – although not the deeper stuff towards the end of your article about icons.

    It’s available on Amazon :
    https://www.amazon.com/Face-God-Gifford-Lectures/dp/147291273X/ref=sr_1_7?dchild=1&keywords=roger+scruton&qid=1593348443&sr=8-7

    Thank you for those two long replies to Michael Bauman on monuments and Things Southern. They were very helpful, and hopeful. Some of the best things on these themes I have seen. I too saw that NYT article and thought it was interesting, and quite powerful. I am not convinced many of the anti-monumentalists (I don’t like calling them iconoclasts as such – I rather see monuments as a specialized sub-species) are as principled, but yes, there is an issue there. I rather think that the problem these line of reasoning entails is where to stop and draw the line. Once one has accepted that icons tainted by some form of evil or repression should be taken down or names removed, where do you stop when people come along and say that they are offended by another name or monument. There is that ongoing debate about the Merchant of Venice, and Wagner …

  25. Ziton,
    I readily grant many valid criticisms about Southern history (and American history in general). However, I also recognize that much of the political use of those criticisms are really about something else – a drive to power. The 1619 Project is pretty much a nakedly Marxist-based movement whose goals would be just another form of oppression. The American story is complex, with many layers, many chapters, many “oppressions” and liberations. It’s reduction to the 1619 narrative is merely an effort to “deconstruct” American history in order to further the goals of the maturing Marxist movement within our culture. I have no idea how all of this is going to play out. My trust is in God. And that’s about as much as I care to say about that topic.

  26. Ziton, Shakespeare’s depiction of Jews in The Merchant of Venice particularly was pretty historically accurate. Jews loan money because Christians were prohibited from lending money at interest. (Hmmmm). That monopoly enabled the Jews to develop the great banking houses of Europe and enormous power.

    I also must note that Portia’s speech on mercy (a transcendent favorite of mine) does a pretty good job of summing up the difference between the Law/Prophets and the mercy of God through His Incarnate Son. Including Portia sticking to the absolute letter of Shylock’s agreement.

    Wagner, is another matter I think. There is no question that he was part of the burgeoning nihilist movement. At least Nietzsche considered him thus. Dedicated to the philosophy of the Will to Power.

    Wagner, theoretically therefore, ought to be in sympathy with the effort to suppress his music. After all, it is merely the working out of his own philosophy.

  27. Father, thank you for your recent posts. They’ve given me much to think about. This present time is a very real struggle for me. On the one hand, I can see what you’re saying (in many of your more recent posts), and I think what you say is true. On the other, I have known so many that suffer in our modern world as a result of unjust politicians, exploitative enterprises, and an economic system contrived to create an ever increasing mass of impoverished people to the benefit of a select few.

    Without Christ and without the Church, I would be truly hopeless, as I don’t see any reason at all to find hope in this world. If one wants to be “successful” it seems as though one has to likewise join the exploitative nature of our current political and economic systems. I feel guilty even going to work sometimes. None of which is to even tough on the history of oppression and violence that has inflicted so many in our society.

    That being said, it is hard for me to truly condemn the current outcry. I don’t participate in it, nor do I condone the violence or property destruction – but I can understand their own cry of absolute hopelessness. The feeling of suffocation, that nothing will ever change, and that they will be condemned to witness again and again the murder of family, friends, and loved ones, even as they struggle day-by-day in poverty and economic hopelessness. The slow and steady political work that ought to be done to help often does precisely the opposite: further hurts them, further oppresses, further locks them in cages.

    It is hard for me to see this as much different than revolts of the past – slave revolts, peasant revolts, etc. Modernity, as I’m sure you would agree, is not alone in produce “revolutions” and extreme outbursts of violence and calls for change. Many historical examples in the Greco-Roman world spring to mind.

    I understand that the situation is confused by the involvement of progressives and such, but might the overall outcry happening right now, the smashing of icons, not also be a response *to* modernity, in a certain sense? Leftists might call themselves progressives, but, in fact, most today (even opponents to “progressives”) consider their preferred political candidates, economic policies, and even views toward other peoples and cultures, a matter of leading to a “better” world. Technological “progress” under our current capitalist economy has led not to utopia, but a dystopia of “haves” and “have-nots” – black Americans falling decidedly into the latter category (and this isn’t even to touch on the matter of racism).

    I don’t desire to be on the “Left” or the “Right” but as I’ve been reading your recent articles, I’ve been struck by the thought that I saw the current movement quite differently: not as modernity, but as a reaction to it. Perhaps it is a “reaction of modernity to modernity.” It’s at odds with itself. Two movements that see “progress” in two different ways clashing with one another.

    Is this a wrong framing?

    I won’t deny that my sympathies lie more with my black brethren who have suffered for so long. I understand your points: real change can only happen when hearts change. Otherwise, it’s a change wrought by violence, likely leading down a path of further violence. It’s hard for me not to see our entire existence in America (or the modern world, for that matter) as an existence of violence, though. The only place I find this not to be the case is in the Orthodox Church.

    I’m not trying to disagree with you. I suppose I’m asking for your opinion on this, and if I’ve missed something. I have a hard time condemning the current movement without likewise condemning the reason so many have felt the need to protest, or engage in acts of violence. Where I think I tend to focus, though, is more on the ever present acts or threats of violence that is perpetrated against people throughout both America and the world. I understand that as Christians we are called to turn the other cheek, and so I try to do (albeit, I fail so often). But is it wrong to call out governing officials and exploiters of the poor who have utterly failed so many?

    When they seem only to respond when outbursts like this happen, is it wrong to find sympathy with those who are engaged in the outburst?

    I cannot emphasize enough: I condemn violence and property destruction. I simply find it difficult to speak of those particular acts, without bearing in mind the continual acts of or threat of violence that the black community in America (and, increasingly, other communities, too – including poor, white working class communities) faces every day of their lives.

    And I have difficulty seeing this as modernity, rather than as a response to it. And most of all, as a cry of the black community, not only for change, but also for compassion and for help.

  28. Michael Bauman, yes that’s all true. My point was that these are truly great art works, but have been contested, and remain ambiguous. If I were Jewish and had had relatives who had been through a concentration camp experience I no doubt would find my reactions to them awkward at the very least and they remain ambiguous to this to day. Merchant probably still (mainly) avoids the post-modernist Liberal Arts Collective blacklist because it has nuances including the “If you prick me, do I not bleed” speech, is open to analysis, and its very anti-semitic awkwardness in the past is challenging in a good way. It is interesting that even the transcendent Portia speech (one of my faves too) still ends with the rather jarring (to my modern ears) “So, Jew …” as she drives home the point … With Wagner, the issues do not so much seem to be the content which is not overly anti-semitic but purely the associations, with its subsequent use by Nazi propagandists, Wagner’s own anti-semitism and, as you say, the whole late Romantic decadence heading into nihilism thing. BUT it does have so many other qualities even many (but not all) of the would be Jewish detractors still give him the time of day. (Personally, I am willing to forgive pretty much everything for even the idea of setting Alberich’s shaming turning into willingness to trade love for power and that setting in train the long trail towards the fall of the old gods. And for Parsifal.) So if there have been controversies over such matters of High Art, it is surely not surprising that there will also be controversies over mere monuments, which while they may have been objects of creative endeavor and have some artistic merit, were nevertheless still mainly erected to make political points and/or glorify the actions of particular individuals? Monuments are monuments at the end of the day, a sub-species. I think I go to the school of thought that thinks that if they can be turned into objects of serious reflection and interpretation about the complexities of the past then they have a potentially useful place, otherwise I am going to find it hard to become too upset about their passing, with the possible exception of cases where there is something of particular artistic merit – in which case transfer to a gallery or museum might be appropriate. My 2 cents.

  29. Ziton, I have never listened to Wagner so I cannot say anything about his music. In my life time his work has always been subject to a great deal of lampooning in a less than respectful manner. I know of him because of my study of Nietzsche only. I appreciate your placing him in an artistic setting. Indeed I appreciate your participation here because reading your posts takes my thought process and contemplation into areas I have not gone in a long time. Thank you.

    Taming of the Shrew also has the interesting “virtue” that may keep it alive of having a woman character who is highly intelligent and forceful displaying far less “gender bias” than many other works. Indeed such women are common in Shakespeare even when they often act primarily out of love and devotion to a man. A lot of historical and sociological layers to be sure. “Give me your hands if we be friends, and gentle Puck will make amends”

    I must say your use of the term “high art” automatically betrays the fact that you are not of the spirit of the age i.e. a leveling madness that demands anyone’s ‘expression’ be afforded the same level of respect and appreciation as finely crafted and actually creative works. The leveling is, of course, also a consequence of the iconoclastic drive to deny anything higher or better.

  30. Nate,
    That what we see is “modernity responding to modernity” is spot on. What else do most people have? Anyone who is not sympathetic with those suffering injustice would be hard of heart. My writings are obviously meant as Christian speaking to Christian – even as Orthodox Christian speaking to Orthodox Christian. There are also layers of complexity within the current events – it’s not just one thing – it’s many things. It makes public conversation quite confusing, no doubt. Of course, a hallmark of modernity, is its complexity.

    In the comments I’ve expressed some concerns viz. Marxism – because that language and those sympathies are certainly out there. The track record of Marxism is largely one of unmitigated disaster. That does not mean that this is all that is taking place. The Bolshevik Revolution (or co-opting of a revolution) had legitimate complaints viz. the Tsarist system. However, in the end, it murdered around 50-60 million in the Soviet Union. (Those are the higher estimates). Thus, you understand my concerns. But even that cannot and should not change the faith – or how we respond to suffering.

  31. They are no doubt truisms, but I was recently reminded that:

    1. We all think in images, and turn to them and in effect worship them. It’s maybe in part a matter of which icons we give our iconodulia (what a great word btw!) to. It’s not do we do it, rather is it to golden calves or the Real Thing?

    2. Re golden calves, modern capitalist society is a perhaps more image obsessed polis than any other in history. In order to sell things it is desperate to get us to attach and the best way to do that is to get us to invest our egos. The best way to do that is to feed our insecurities and passions. And the best way to do that is to create airbrushed icons of worldly or personal success and get us to bow down to those, and want to be (or at least become closer to) those. Recently, social media and digital photography has metastasized all of this into getting many of us into creating a carefully created often very visual narrative of who we want the world – and maybe ourselves – to think we are. So modernity is not anti-icon, but obsessed with them but with the camera turned around. It has inverted the whole thing. Many people put a great deal of effort into creating these icons, these golden calves. False self aspirational projections of our insecurities and fantasies that have been programmed into us. Ours is a culture that shows (an icon of?) what happens when the second commandment is ignored, or even just found incomprehensible.

    Perhaps this is another reason why real iconodulia of real icons is so important. It reminds us that the correct direction to look is not towards turning ourselves into icons. It is about giving us a means of escaping all of that false self obsession nonsense simply by looking outwards, looking deeply, looking through a window into a world beyond where love dwells and is and is calling our true selves. Instagram or the Iconostasis?

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