We Christians have an image problem. No, I’m not talking about our image problem in society, but our actual problem with images. C. S. Lewis wrote,
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.C. S. Lewis. A Grief Observed (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1994), 66.
This is another goal of mine for Christian Origins/Current Faith. With the aid of biblical scholarship and archaeology, we have greater access to the real images of scripture than the past. In my blog and on my website, I use contemporary Bible movies or photos of artifacts. However, I realize that even many of these images are facsimiles of the genuine articles.
Jesus: The True Image
Images convey both spiritual lessons and theological truths. If you search for “Christ the King” in your browser, you will see Caucasian images of Jesus decked out in European royal garments. Did the historical Jesus actually wear a gold crown and purple robes? No, he actually wore a crown of thorns. The only time Jesus had a purple robe was when Pilate’s soldiers mocked him. It’s 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 this ethnocentrism which betrayed the true image of Christ. We must take a wrecking ball to it.
Whenever we forget that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who taught the Mosaic law, observed Jewish customs, had a Jewish name, and only chose Jews as his twelve apostles, we commit idolatry as we re-appropriate 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. However, if it says that we are some “new Israel” or that our church supersedes God’s chosen people, then it’s idol worship and bigotry. The truth is, Jesus brings us gentiles into Israel as ingrafted branches. We are not their replacement.
Scripture & Visual Learning
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 also when he 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. The Lord’s supper is another image that we need, as it gives us a tangible presence of Jesus and his grace.
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 never feel edified by a good sermon, but the Lord’s supper does not rely on the skill of the one presiding over it. Faith implies a hope in the unseen, and all of us need some kind of visual to understand truth. For example, God told the Israelites to wear tefillin (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
I use images from archaeology or newer Bible films because it’s a matter of life and death. No, I don’t mean salvation, but exactly what pictures reveal. When I was in Kosovo, I visited an Orthodox convent and walked away feeling the same dread I do at funerals. Growing up in the Catholic Church, statues and icons were familiar to me. Yet, this was a turning point in my appreciation of Roman and Byzantine sacred art. I still respect their artistry, but I 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 other contexts, 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 a stained glass window of him. Instead of using icons as windows of heaven, I want to apply a mirror to the scriptures to view their context.
For many Christians, it’s hard to use archaeology, history, and Jewish tradition to see a different way of Christianity than our Sunday school flannel boards. How do we connect to a culture that’s foreign and resembles what Middle Eastern people still do? This is the life of God in the image of Christ Jesus, the one who utterly destroys our biases of the world and challenges us to confront our own sins. If your “Jesus” doesn’t do that, then you have an idol who resembles you and not the image of God. As C. S. Lewis said, “This shattering [of God] is one of the marks of his presence.”
Lewis, C. S. A Grief Observed. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1994.