Monday, July 19, 2010

The Problem with Images of Christ

Going in a different direction from yesterday. I realize peeps have strong convictions on this issue, and feel very free to weigh in, but please keep it respectful. Thanks!

Are artistic renderings of the Lord Jesus Christ wrong? As in, sinful, potentially dangerous spiritually, blasphemous, or idolatrous?

I'm thinking that portraits of Christ, even with the best of intentions, are a bad idea at best, and can be all of the above at worst. However, I don't think all drawings - especially those clearly not intended to be representational - are necessarily in violation of the second commandment.

First off, if you read Deuteronomy 4:15-17 in context, it is clearly talking about "graven images" in the context of worship. If we were to isolate those two verses from the passage at large and take it at completely literal face-value, all artwork depicting nature and animals would be forbidden as well. This prohibition on making "graven images" for the purpose of "bowing down to" them is a reiteration of Exodus 20:3-4. Clearly, we would all agree that praying TO a statue, image, or representation of anyone (even Christ-centered art) would be unbiblical, so we don't have to exegete the Decalogue any further.

What about images of God? Since God is Spirit, He cannot be depicted as a physical being. Does this, however, extend to images of Christ? The hypostatic union means that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, now and forever more. He ascended into heaven in a glorified body, and during His earthly ministry appeared "in the likeness of man". Devotional artwork, then, seems reasonable - at first glance.

Part of the reason I have never been too strongly opposed to drawings or artwork of Christ is because of the strong educational/evangelistic purpose such media serves, both historically and currently, among illiterate people (I include both small children and the uneducated of the Third World). A couple of summers ago, we brought our children to the Rila Monastery high in the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria. Showing them the intricate scenes painted around the outside and all over the interior walls of the chapel, my husband explained that those biblical scenes were painted by the monks of the 10th century in order to educate the parishoners about biblical history. Although the Slavonic-speaking countries had the written Word before those in the West, few could read it and many relied on what little information they could glean from the liturgy. Pictorial scenes helped.

Interestingly, in Byzantine iconography, the distinctive artistic style is designed to be somewhat unrealistic. Unlike the Western Renaissance and Medieval religious art (which is more aesthetically beautiful and realistic), Byzantine icons are deliberately symbolic and originated as a form of instruction. Unfortuantely, that has not stopped many millions from worshipping them - and, in the words of a now-deceased Patriarch, was one of the reasons Protestants have traditionally been so despised in the Orthodox countries: "...They refuse to worship the Holy Icons..."*

But let's consider the purely educational benefit of symbollic (as opposed to representational) images of Christ. Children's Bibles, Sunday School worksheets, and things of that nature....I personally think are harmless. Even a two-year-old knows that a googly-eyed cartoon character in her Beginner's Bible is not a photograph of Jesus, and she does not pray to the picture (or visualize Christ as a cartoon character). My boys have long had this sketch on their wall, and recognize it for what it is - an artist's sketch of Jesus, loving on a child:

However, when I was a middle schooler in parochial school, we had a very realistic, large portrait of Christ by the same artist. For years, I pictured the Alpha and Omega as looking like the kindly gentleman in Frances Hook's painting (and certainly not like the blond Norweigan-looking Viking Jesus in an illustrated Bible I had!) Popular artwork trends have changed in how they portray Jesus over the years, and this is, IMO, a sign of what's wrong. We cannot just come up with our own "favorite image" of Jesus, and visualize Him thus.

As Glenn pointed out in yesterday's combox, that is akin to carrying around a picture in your wallet and telling people it's your wife - when it is someone else entirely. I was uneasy carrying around a certain image (even in my mind's eye) of Christ, when in fact none of us know what He looks like. You don't have this issue with childish, cartoon-style drawings; the more realistic the imagery, the more it sets up an image in one's mind - which is not really Christ. This is the problem, at it's heart, with "devotional" artwork (paintings designed to encourage devotional feelings, such as the Hook portrait I liked so much). Your devotion is to a false image of a real Person.

Additionally, many of the more recent depictions I have seen of the Lord Jesus are disrespectful at best; even blasphemous. While I doubt this was his intention, Stephen Sawyer's portraits definitely strike me this way. We don't even need to get into a discussion about all the creepy kitsch in Christian book and toy catalogues of all stripes (Jesus playing soccer with kids; Jesus action figures sold at Walmart, etc.)

Films about the life of Christ present a similar dilemna, to my way of thinking. No one can deny how greatly God has used The Jesus Film and similar evangelistic movies, such as the Indian "Man of Mercy". And yet, for every reasonably-accurate biblical film made about Christ, it seems there are ten more entertainment-driven, inaccurate trainwrecks that take a dangerously wide berth from the Scriptures. Add to their number the films that are downright heretical ("The Last Temptation of Christ"; "Jesus Christ Superstar") and again there is a slippery slope. Even the "good" ones run the risk of misrepresenting the Jesus of the Gospels.

Just as every portrait has a model (the real subject of the painting, if you think about it), films feature actors. One Good Friday, a friend blogged about how an image from "The Passion of the Christ" was used during Mass to inspire private prayer. As she pointed out, staring at Jim Caviezel's bloodied form did not inspire worship of Christ. She had to close her eyes to concentrate (I would probably have opened to John's Gospel, which never fails to move me in a way no movie ever could). In a similar way, I worry that a friend who wept all night and re-dedicated her life to Christ after seeing the film is more in love with Caviezel than Christ (although she probably doesn't realize it). Christian Bale once played Jesus in a horrible, made-for-TV movie that promoted a feminist agenda. Comments about the film from young, female fans online focused on his physical attractiveness. One young fan even jokingly stated that Bale "could convert [her] anytime!"

This was never the purpose of the Gospel.

Taking the iconoclast position to the extreme, where we feel we need to burn every children's drawing symbolizing Christ, is (IMO) going too far. However, I am beginning to see the danger of visualizing or depicting in realistic, devotional artwork an image that is supposed to portray Christ. In "Worship: The Ultimate Priority", Macarthur discusses in some detail why visualizing God is wrong - the bottom line being, it degrades Him. God is so much bigger, more beautiful and awesome than any image made by humans could capture, that to even try is to do Him injustice. The Bible does not describe the appearance of Christ - perhaps for a reason. Some things are not meant for us to know this side of eternity, perhaps because of our propensity towards idolatry.

*Quoted in "Heralds of the Truth: The History of the Evangelical Church in Bulgaria" by Pastor Hristo Kulichev. Copyright 2009.

1 comment:

Ma ~ said...

I have been pondering this lately, too. We are on the same page on quite a few things:)