It's no surprise that we Christians have an image problem. However, I'm not here to talk about that image problem, but our actual problem with the images. C. S. Lewis once said, "My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins."¹ This is another one of my goals in Christian Origins, Modern Faith. With the aid of biblical scholarship and archaeology, we now have better access to the real images of scripture. In my blog and my Christian Origins, Modern Faith website, I purposely use either contemporary Bible movies for illustration or photos of artifacts—that is, as much as copyright laws permit. However, I realize that even many of these images are parts or facsimiles of the genuine articles.
Jesus: The True Image
Here's where I'm coming from: images communicate both spiritual lessons and theological truths. For example, if you search for "Christ the King" in your browser, you will see obviously Caucasian images of Jesus decked out in European royal clothing. Did the historical Jesus actually wear a gold crown and purple robes? No, he actually wore a crown of thorns and the only time he had a purple robe was when Pilate whipped him. It's also highly doubtful that a first-century Galilean would have been Caucasian, but Semitic. In the past, the "Christ the King" was a powerful image of Jesus' divinity. However, we cannot ignore the ethnocentrism that betrayed the true image of Christ for us. Therefore, we need to take the wrecking ball to it. Whenever we forget that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who taught from the Jewish law, did Jewish things, had a Jewish name, and only chose Jews to be his 12 apostles, we commit idolatry as we reappropriate these images into our own culture. If "Christ the King" helps us realize that Jesus includes us into his new covenant, then it's a good image. But if it tells us that we are some "new Israel" or that our church supersedes God's chosen people, then it's idol worship and outright bigotry. The truth is, we gentiles are ingrafted branches into Israel, not a replacement of the original congregation.
Scripture & Visual Learning
So, why do we have images if they're so problematic? They don't have to be. Remember, the same time that God forbid the Israelites from making graven images was when he also required them to make the Ark of the Covenant. Jesus, too, came to be the image of the unseen God, making him known to us. Communion is another image that we need, as it gives us a tangible presence of Jesus and his grace. Personally, I am a visual learner, meaning that audio learning is harder for me. So, I get more out of sacraments than I do preaching. That's not to say I don't ever feel edified by a good sermon, but communion nor music ever let me down. Although faith implies a hope in the unseen, all of us need some kind of visual to understand certain truths. For example, God directed the Israelites to wear tefillin (or phylacteries) and tzitzit (fringes) to remember his commandments. Tefillin are small leather boxes stuffed with Bible verses that Jews wear on their foreheads and hands. Tzitzit are for remembering one's relationship with God, worn on the edges of one's cloak. When the hemorrhaging woman, for example, grabbed Jesus' fringes, she probably latched onto his tzitzit in the hope of a divine healing.
Images as a Matter of Life & Death
Going back to the reason I use images from archaeology or newer Bible movies, it's a matter of life and death. No, I don't mean salvation, but what exactly certain pictures convey. When I was in Kosovo, for example, I visited an Orthodox convent and walked away from the experience feeling like I do at funerals. Growing up in the Catholic Church, I was used to statues and icons, but this was a turning point in my appreciation of Roman and Byzantine sacred art. I still respect the artistry of such pieces, but I can no longer connect with God through them. They don't tell about Jesus, but about what some long-dead people believed about him. Frankly, icons and statues are reminders of death. In any other context, when we see a statue of a historical figure or some iconic painting, it's because the person died. We're remembering something about that person as a moment frozen in time. Jesus should not be frozen in time for us, but resurrected into a new life. This means I want to see images of Jesus in the way the first-century church saw him. I want to meet the flesh-and-blood man of Jesus, not just a stained glass window of him. Instead of using icons as a window of heaven, I want to apply a mirror to the scriptures to view the context surrounding its verses. For many Christians, it's hard to use the historical-critical lens, archaeology, and Jewish tradition to look at a different vision of Christianity than our Sunday-school flannel boards. How do we connect to a culture that's foreign and looks so much like what Middle Eastern people still do? This is the life of God in the image of Christ Jesus, the one who utterly destroys our preconceptions of the world, and challenges us to confront our own sins. If your "Jesus" doesn't do that, then you have an idol who oddly happens to resemble you and not the image of God. As C. S. Lewis said, "This shattering [of God] is one of the marks of his presence."
1. C. S. Lewis. A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1994), 66.