Images, Icons & Idols

February 28, 2008

michael claytonI had a few different thoughts from this past week’s conversations in one of my classes. First, having never really taken a theology and film class, I really appreciated the discussion of Michael Clayton after we watched the movie on Monday. Being an English major, it’s a (relatively) new concept that what before seemed to me to be purely entertainment is now employing a parallel depth and intelligence that has always drawn me to the written word. I most appreciated the part of the discussion about the complicated nature of our lives, how things are not simple and orderly and easily categorized. Characters have layers, stories have layers, we have layers (I’m getting an unnecessary image of Shrek and the onion). Everything is connected, but no lines are clearly drawn. I would benefit from watching the movie again.

The second thought that captured my attention was the TED-talk Alison Jackson gave on how photography seduces us into voyeurism. I am not much drawn to celebrity life, personally. When I took Theology and Culture last year, I was unable to participate in the discussion of our favorite celebrities because I really just have little interest in the lives of people Queen of England on the looI do not know personally. But the idea that we believe what we see in a picture, that we cannot tell what is real and what is not, and that maybe we do not even care if something sensational turns out not to be true—the idea that we are aware of the seduction and continue to consume fascinates me. We are such a visually driven culture. Where I grew up reading books and imagining for myself, children today grow up watching TV and movies based on those books, fixed into someone else’s vision. There is something about being fed information through a screen that turns off our active intelligence in favor of passive acceptance: we receive and receive and receive, but how much do we evaluate and ponder? How much are we aware of the effect of the visual on our daily lives? This idea draws me back to my first thought, the revelation that movies may have more than entertainment value. They might cause us to think and criticize and respond. They might cause change. Someone in class said that where music used to be the catalyst for change, film is stepping into that slot.

The third thought I had from the week concerned the issue of icon and idol. Peter Rollins discusses the issue in his book How (Not) to Speak of God. I remember writing a paper for Aesthetics in college on the veneration of icons in the Christian tradition: is it idolatry? I never could quite decide; bpeter rollins bookoth positions were persuasive. I remember concluding that if I were in a congregation where my fellow Christians had trouble separating the veneration of an image from the worship of it, I would rather remove images from the sanctuary than mess with their faith. But for myself, I hunger for color and light, texture and symbol and anything beautiful that inspires for me a sense of the holy that we talked about the first week. I thought of my paper when we discussed idols and icons in class, and I thought about the comment someone made that the Bible itself is an icon—pointing through itself to God. But we can get stuck at the page, bogged down in the text, and we miss the whole point; our vision arrests and cannot pierce through the page to see God. This takes me back to the idea of God’s creative word that speaks into existence and the correlation with the Word that arrives in human form to give us an image of God, for whomever has seen Jesus has seen his Father in heaven. The words on the page point to God, just as the Word points to God. Yet Jesus is more than an icon. Clearly there is still more to think about here. But the idea that images are so important is one that stuck with me all week long.

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Holiness & Beauty

February 27, 2008

I was profoundly struck by the discussion we had in one of my classes about the relation between holiness and beauty—specifically the definition of holiness as that which is beaubeauty of holinesstiful. Being an amateur philosopher and a lover of the liberal arts, beauty and aesthetics have always fascinated me. The image of God as Creator, the ultimate source of creativity, has inspired unspeakable awe and wonder. The idea that beauty embodies holiness, or that one may find holiness in the experience of beauty (visually or as we said in class, through the beautiful act or the recognition of beautiful character), has sent me back to my undergrad days, reading Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, meditating on the character and mind of God.

The relation between holiness and beauty was an especially apt concept for me last week as I prepared to do something new and rather innovative (relatively speaking) in Presbyterian Chapel. We had our first “Worship with Creative Arts” chapel. As I sat in the prayer room the week before, I thought about this definition of holiness as beauty, and I began meditating on that relationship. I thought about how God’s holiness is reflected in the beauty of the earth God has created—with just a word! What creative power that word holds! We, in response, can participate in that holiness when we participate in beauty—enjoying it and creating it. So in chapel this morning, we spread out art supplies all over the room and asked people to meditate on Isaiah 58:11 and Matthew 6:28-33 and respond to that meditation by creating something—anything—to offer to God at the end of the service. What a response! It was truly inspiring to see Presbyterians (traditionally the “frozen chosen”) able to glorify God by participating in the services with their gifts and their creativity.

I started out with these two verses, asking what they told us about God. The nature imagery grabbed my attention: the well-watered garden, the sun-scorched desert, the splendor of Solomon, the lilies of the field. And then the context of these verses struck me: Isaiah 58:11 comes as a promise in the midst of fasting, observing the Sabbath, and serving the poor andwell-watered garden marginalized. Matthew 6:28 comes in the midst of the sermon on the mount, as Jesus taught his listeners how to live and serve God. These passages, these promises, require action on our parts. They require response! Yet they promise in the midst of stress, grief, brokenness, doubt, uncertainty about the future that God will sustain. They promise that whether we bear concerns of finances, employment, community, love, wisdom and discernment, gifts (creative, intellectual, or spiritual), God will provide. And our response in chapel? We sang a song and drew a picture.

In my own meditations on these theme verses, so many more began to come to mind: Psalm 8—what is the human that God is mindful of us? Psalm 42—the deer pants for water. Isaiah 6—the imagery-laden call in God’s throne room. Revelation 22:17 – all who are thirsty come to the river of life. 1 Kings 10:23-25—an account of Solomon’s glory. Particularly with Solomon, I think it’s interesting that with all we can do and create on our own, with all the glory that Solomon amassed, it cannot hold a candle to the creative word of God that would speak a lily into existence. God’s creativity and beauty, as God’s holiness, are so wholly other; yet we are made in the image of that creative and beautiful and holy God, and our words contain the power to create as well.

I thought also about John 15:1-17—the fruit of the vine that results when we abide in the vine that is Jesus. It is from God that we get our creative gifts, but to use them properly and to their full abundance, we must remain attached to the God through whom flows that creative power. That holiness. That holy, holy, holy holiness. Otherwise we are nothing more than Solomon’s glory, amazing for a moment but lost forever because of the disconnect with the holiness and beauty of God. Also Psalm 29 – the beauty of holiness, this is not a new thought! The Israelites understood this deep connection between beauty and holiness, this innate part of God’s glory that must be recognized and responded to. This creativity is what we were created for (Gen 1-2), to bring forth fruit from the earth.

As I sat in chapel last week, watching my fellow “frozen chosen” mold play-dough, cubeautiful lilyt up pieces of paper, glue glitter on card stock, and paint the beautiful bouquet of lilies my friend gave me for Valentine’s Day—as I listened to the gifts of music and poetry being offered throughout the hour—I was overwhelmed with the presence of God among us. Out of our chaos, out of our disordered and last-minute scrambling, out of our lifeless planning and preparing, out of our concerns and fears and misunderstandings, in the midst of our stress and grief and doubt, God moved. God moved powerfully. God spoke in our hearts, and we responded with crayons and glue. And God was honored. God was glorified. We experienced the holiness and beauty of God in our communal creation for God’s name this morning. A bunch of Presbyterians made Sunday-School artwork for God. And what a blessing it was to us all!

That is my meditation on the relation between holiness and beauty, inspired by class. I don’t have it all worked out yet. I’m still thinking and wondering. I still want to know how exactly those words are related in Hebrew and Greek. I still want to know if it’s the beauty of holiness or the holiness of beauty. Or both. I’m still deciding whether it’s the heart or the head that experiences this intertwining of holiness and beauty. Maybe it’s both as well. What I do know is that God provides. God sustains. God by that creative word speaks life into us, and we in turn are able to speak life into each other, into the world. And that is—for me—a holy, awesome thought.