Thoughts on Icons and Iconography

When I was growing up, there was a small plaque with an encouraging spiritual saying, hanging by our back door. It was on the left side of the door, which swung right. So it was right in front of me whenever I went outside to play catch with my dad, or shoot baskets while listening to Foreigner. Below the plaque was our family television, a piece of furniture covered in picture frames. So if I sat on the couch and watched MTV or Scooby Doo, that plaque hung just above my line of site. It was the kind of decorative piece you knew every inch of but never actually sat and looked at.

Earth has no sorrow heaven can’t heal.

I thought about this while reading Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. He discusses the primacy of our thoughts as disciples of Christ and how those thoughts are formed, or rather transformed. He narrows down what forms and transforms our thoughts: ideas and images.

Ideas? As a Bible teacher I trade in ideas, so this seemed obvious. The discussion was illuminating and encouraging but was not controversial. What I found interesting was his discussion of images and how they shape our thoughts. The following is from Chapter 6, “Transforming the Mind, 1:”

…with references to the use of images. We need to be in the presences of images, both visual and auditory (good sayings, poetry, and songs). These can constantly direct and redirect our minds toward God, Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the church (people of God). “Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange to have them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts to see ourselves before God in all levels of our being.

Not long ago, people in the United States commonly had edifying sayings on their walls. I recall from my childhood one that said, “Only one life. It will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” This and other good sayings were constantly before the minds of all who lived in the house. They were powerfully effective because they became, through mere habit, an enduring presence and influence within the minds of those who constantly saw them. What is now constantly before the minds of those who live where we do?

Today we as a culture are schizophrenic on such matters. We want to say it doesn’t make any difference what we look at or hear. This, no doubt, is because we want to be “free” to show anything and see anything–no matter how evil and revolting. But businesses still pay millions of dollars to show us something for thirty seconds on television. They do that because they know that what we repeatedly see and hear affects what we do. Otherwise they would go out of business.”

A whole other post could be written on the place of music and what we read and how the ideas and images from those form our thoughts. But I was shocked by his statement about icons and the use of those. Shocked because I am not used to evangelicals talking this way.

But only for a moment.

Because then it dawned on me –– our thoughts are already being formed by iconography. We are awash in screens covered in images. We have whole social media accounts dedicated to images, images which are forming our thoughts about others and ourselves. Indeed, they are transforming our thoughts and minds.

We are fools if we think we are not already using icons to shape us. Sometimes we do this passively, Sometimes we act more consciously. Regardless, we knowingly shape our thoughts through images. We are being transformed and shaped by images all the time.

A possible objection would be, “But icons are used for worship. Couldn’t that be a problem? Might they distract from Christ or take his place?”

Maybe. But nearly every pastor I know references movies and TV shows and they assume the images the hearer will use will aid the listener in thinking about the point being made. Why are those images okay and an image of Christ as the King on a board is not? Why is a print of Monet’s Waterlilies okay to hang on my wall and an icon of Jesus or the Apostles not okay? Why do we assume one is natural and the other is more likely to be worshiped.

monet.jpg

Think about the movie posters above. One is a picture of romance and sacrifice. One is a picture of redemption. And one is a picture of manliness and courage. All three of these movies have been used in sermon illustrations. All three images and their corresponding stories are ingrained into the minds of our culture.

Willard, I think, is making a very logical and wise point. We are being formed by images all the time. If that is the case, we need to put before us images. These images are not to be worshiped but are used to transform our thoughts, reminding us we have a King and we are part of a real kingdom. We are sheep and have need of the Good Shepherd. We are brides and have a Groom. We are hurting and weary, but we have One Who is interceding for us.

Are they necessary, no? Are they more beneficial than the images we demand daily on our computers and televisions? No question.

We can and should debate the use of icons in daily life and in corporate worship. But what we as evangelicals need to recognize is we are already being formed by images. That is not debatable.