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Ancient-future lessons (CNMAC 2012 seminar)

An image showing an icon of St John of Damascus

This is the transcript of my seminar today at the Christian New Media Conference. Thanks to those who came to the seminar and for all your encouraging and positive interaction and feedback. For the accompanying Powerpoint, you can download it (.ppt, 7.9 Mb)

Now, as someone who has lived his Christian life through both the Anglican and evangelical traditions, images of God is not something that comes very naturally to me. I am sure we all know the Ten Commandments instruction to not make graven images (perhaps better translated as not making an idol) and not to bow down or worship them.

Indeed, the protestant churches (from which I’m guessing a good proportion of us come) generally draw their heritage from a long line of leaders and thinkers who have been pretty anti-image.

Listen to this from 1563:

But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity? No, for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of his word. (Heidelberg Catechism)

Indeed, you don’t have to go back that far to find serious debate about whether it was okay to image God in British society. Since the Reformation and despite their often frequent references in morality plays, God and Christ were never depicted in the theatre for many many years. Did you know that in the 1930s Parliament had a debate about whether it was okay for Jesus to be shown on-screen, played by actors, in movie films?

And yet, despite all this cultural baggage, this anti-image history that many of us have, the image of God online today proliferates. Furthermore if you go to a good number of Christian churches around the UK today, you will find projection screens being used to provide words of songs or liturgy. notices, but also a good number of them are using images… either images of God, paintings and movie stills, movie clips or images of the world around us through which we are invited to infer God’s presence with us in creation.

So for a tradition of churchmanship, protestant, Anglican, let alone evangelical, that has such a historic aversion to imagery, we’re starting to get pretty regular at using them. Notice, I didn’t say ‘pretty good’ at using them. Some are good at it, many are not. I am sure many of us can tell stories of being in a Church service or trying to do God in an online environment and find the choice of an image provided to us crashed into our consciousness in an unwelcome way, an unhelpful way.

Seeking God online or using digital technologies in church can be beautifully enhanced or crudely obstructed depending on the visual literacy of those making the decisions. We might live in a society that is image orientated, perhaps even image-saturated, but I am not sure that Christians are always ‘image-savvy’.

‘Presentational technologies will not magically transform us into a community of worshipers [sic] who love God and neighbor [sic]. Unless we use them wisely, attuned to how images contribute meaningfully to worship, they will tend to create even more visual “noise” that clutters our minds.’ Quentin Schultze, 2004, pp20-21

I think the task of literacy with images is critical because of the nature of our own generation. If we are an ‘iconographic culture’ as many commentators say we are, then we must pay careful ‘attention to the images used in liturgy, in worship and online as being absolutely vital to influencing our generation’s spiritual reality.’

My own church, the Church of England spent about ten years between 1990 and 2000 (approximately) getting their words right; re-writing and adjusting and editing the liturgy of the church. And yet, not the blindest bit of notice was paid to imagery.

So where do we turn for some wisdom? Let me introduce you to one of my heroes from the history of the church, St John of Damascus. This guy was a seriously radical, cool dude.

Now while I’ve had a lot of background in technology, my hold on church history is a bit more limited. However, to try and summarise, in the 8th Century, the eastern centre of the Christian faith in the Byzantine court was under a lot of pressure. The new religion of Islam was on the rise and annexing land and people at a tremendous pace. Of course, Islam (then as now) was strictly anti-image.

The Iconoclasm (Gk for ‘image breaking’) saw hundreds of churches damaged or destroyed, mostly by Christians rather than Muslims, keen to ‘purify’ their worship, as they perceived it, from the influence of images. In AD 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III issued an edict prohibiting the use of icons in worship. He banned their veneration or display in public places.

Several hundred miles away, in the relative security and peace of the monastery of Mar Sabbas in Palestine, John of Damascus was a mission-minded bloke who thought this ban was an absolute disaster. He wrote three books in defence of the use of images in worship.

He was influential at the time and I think he has some really useful stuff to say to us today. I believe that St John has provided us with a theology of the image that can really help us think about how we use imagery in speaking of God in the 21st century.

I say that, because, fundamentally, what this issue is about is not about how cool our technology is. Actually, technology and worship and mission have always gone hand-in-hand. In the seventh and eighth century,  the familiar everyday media in use were wood and paint. So they used wood and paint to communicate images of God. In later centuries, people began to use stained glass to speak of God. Woodcuts in books and Bibles. The printing press itself opened up new vistas in mission. In the last century, we saw the rise of the Jesus movies – something that has continued into the world we know today where, of course, the world of new media is now opening up yet more horizons of opportunity.

But the principle is the same. Technology may change, but speaking of God in images using familiar everyday media is as old as the hills.

As a result, we do ourselves a massive disservice, I think, if we don’t learn from the lessons of those who have gone before us. Wise people, holy people, experienced saints, lives lived in prayer, radical believers keen to communicate the gospel. We ignore them to our huge detriment.

So what did St John say? Well, the first thing he said was that using images to communicate God was about mission and evangelism. St John was convinced that images can help people understand  and comprehend something of God and what it means to be a Christian.

They are, said St John, both educational tools for discipleship and tools for mission for those outside the Church.  In section 21 of his third apology, he said:

[Images] give us a faint apprehension of God and the angels where otherwise we would have none, because it is impossible for us to think immaterial things unless we can envision analogous shapes. (St John, 1980: 76)

In my favourite St John quote, he said ‘what the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate’ (1980: 25).  He saw it as absolutely crucial that in his own time and culture where access to text was limited and, more importantly, large numbers of the population couldn’t read, the image was something that spoke of God and brought the good news of Jesus to everyone.

He goes on to suggest that images also work because they are something with which the everyday people of society are already familiar and can therefore assimilate. In the first apology, he says:

“Visible things are corporeal models which provide a vague understanding of intangible things… Our inability immediately to direct our thoughts to contemplation of higher things makes it necessary that familiar everyday media be utilized to give suitable form to what is formless, and make visible what cannot be depicted, so that we are able to construct understandable analogies.”” (St John, 1980: 20, my emphasis)

Of course, we live in a country where most people can read. Literacy, in that sense, is not the same problem that John faced. But we live in a world where the book is not the natural choice of communication for a great proportion of the population. In a world of television, the cinema and the Internet, the image (and the moving image as well) are media that people are far more ready to absorb in receiving the gospel as we attempt to find understandable analogies in communicating good news.

So the first lesson from St John is this: We speak of God in images because we live in a world soaked in images. It is our language, far more than the printed word, and so it can communicate gospel truth to those who are used to thinking in such terms.

The second thing we learn from St John is that the image of God is important online because Jesus took human flesh. St John spoke and grounded his defence of the use of icons in the heart and nature of God and, in particular, the Incarnation.

Therefore I boldly draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes by partaking of flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I paint the image of God who became visible in the flesh. (St John, 1980: 16)

Painting a picture of God with images is possible because God himself has painted a picture of who He is. He has painted a picture in flesh and blood – the man Jesus of Nazareth.

As a result, anything that draws attention to the Son of God as incarnated is a vital theological point for the church in all ages to grasp and by which we should live. Making an image of Jesus reminds us that Jesus was a living, breathing human being. The intention of such images, like the gospel accounts, is to help us understand who Jesus is and, therefore, what God is like.

A couple of years ago, I prepared a video for our Christmas carol service – a major evangelistic event for us. I used Labyrinth’s Let the Sun Shine, I put together a montage of clips from all sorts of movies about the life of Jesus aiming to try illustrate the Incarnation. My focus wasn’t the cross or the traditional stories from the gospels. Rather, the clips were of images of Jesus in natural everyday settings. He threw water at his mother, laughed, danced at a wedding, held a child. The intention was to show Jesus as a real human being.

In one email received after the service, a member of the congregation said:

‘I particularly enjoyed your visual piece yesterday. Nearly called it a video, but that’s not what it is. As a person who remembers things in pictures and struggles with words, I found it spoke powerfully! So loved the bit with [Willem] Dafoe as Jesus dancing’.

I thought the way she put that email was fascinating. Self-defining herself as one who struggles with words, the use of images spoke powerfully to this person. Her comment that it wasn’t a video is also interesting since it was a video that I had edited and put together. The person seemed to be struggling to categorize what they had seen. They describe it as a visual piece, then a video, but then catch themselves – ‘but that’s not what it is’. All this serves to highlight the possibilities of trying to speak of God with imagery. New categories that people struggle to define come to birth – categories that are creative, playful, inspiring, encouraging and instructional for worship.

So, we speak of God in images because we live in a world soaked in images. Second, we are called to speak of God in image because Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The third reason that St John encourages us to use images online is because they enable us to partake in grace.

What do I mean by that?

Well, another key idea in John’s writing is that when one honours an image, one gives honour to the person who is depicted. This doesn’t come naturally to me but St John said that in venerating an images you showed a respect for the work of God in that person; a respect for fellow members of the body of Christ. However, John develops his argument further and suggests that giving honour to such images of Jesus, Mary his mother and the saints allows the giver of honour to partake in the grace of God that was at work in these people.

This sense of partaking in grace is perhaps most clearly spelt out in John’s own commentary on the first apology when he says:

Matter is filled with divine grace through prayer addressed to those portrayed in images. … By itself it deserves no worship, but if someone portrayed in an image is full of grace, we become partakers of the grace according to the measure of the faith. (1980: 36)

Now before any good protestants in the room think I’m saying that these images have a power in themselves, just think about this for a minute. Have you ever watched a video online or on DVD with a speaker preaching and then, at the end, when he invites you to respond, to raise your arms in prayer… do you do it? Do you pray? Do you raise your arms? Does the video affect you in a spiritual manner; are you able to meet with God?

The answer in each case is yes – these (moving) images shown in very contemporary, Western churches who have no real history of the practice of iconography, enable the people present to do exactly what John was talking about – we partake in grace with the people in the images.

When you did that, when you participated in a prayer, did you think you were worshipping the person on the screen? No, of course you didn’t. You were partaking in grace, sharing in the sense of the Holy Spirit at work through that person and in that moment even though you are in a very different place to that person and may even have been in a very different time.

I think that’s really interesting. To take a famous example, do you think Dr Lockridge could have envisaged that decades after he preached ‘That’s my King’, an entirely different generation would be blessed and inspired and be meeting with God because his words were set to music, set to images and released online? We become partakers in grace from a different age.

The church has an old expression for this: The Communion of the Saints. That across the world, but also down the ages, even with those who have died in Christ – we are one. We are the body of Christ, we share with them in worship. The online world is making possible some very new, but very real expressions of that communion.

The beauty of all this is rather than encouraging idolatry, the potential for images is to dispel idolatry. Everyday images can be sanctified and we are pointed to the Father. Use of the image allows the worshipper to make links between their everyday lives and their worship of God.

To give an interesting example from myself, I used one of Ben Bell’s images in an Advent worship service – a pedestrian WAIT sign was projected to help explain the notion of Advent as a time of preparation and waiting.

The mental connection then immediately leapt back to the mind the following day when standing at an ordinary pedestrian crossing and waited for the lights to change. The use of the image had brought God and divine grace into the mundane and everyday.

I long for the day when our use of images in worship & online gets away from sunsets, flowers, rivers, waterfalls and picturesque countryside. Of course, they are beautiful and of course they can speak of God.

But is God only present when the natural world is at its most glorious? Greater attention can be paid to everyday life. The WAIT sign, urban scenes, family life, perhaps even the natural world at its most ugly would be interesting in order to inspire this generation’s spirituality. Can God be found on the commute or walking home late at night in a dark alley or only when I make that once a year holiday journey, and travel a countryside footpath in the noonday sun?

We speak of God in images because we live in a world soaked in images. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate (visually literate). We are called to speak of God in image because Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The Incarnation is absolutely crucial to the health of our Christian faith. Finally, as we use images, we partake of grace. The Spirit of God can impact us and include us in ministries that suddenly stretch across space and time because of what new media and the Internet enable.

Technology is always a powerful influence on Christian communities whether we are speaking about our buildings, organs, books or more recent technologies like projection or the Internet.

I believe that these new technologies with careful thought and discerning action, can be utilized to enrich the experience of God in church services and online.

As the use of such technology in Christian circles continues and in all probability grows, we will be shaped and also shapers of what is happening around us. If we do not have such an awareness and if we fail to learn the lessons from the saints in previous eras, then we ‘fail to understand the deeper processes of formation’ that are at work within us, both individually and collectively.

I believe that a willingness to reflect on how we utilize these technologies and a sense of self-awareness in such processes of shaping will be needed as we seek to stay in step with the Spirit so that we might be formed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

Thank you.

Bibliography

St John of Damascus. (1980), St John of Damascus on the Divine Images, Translated by David Anderson. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press
Beaudoin, T. (1998), Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, San Francisco: Jossey Bass
Green, D.R.J. (2012), Hands-free worship: pastoral, theological and missiological dimensions of digital projection and computer technology in worship, Self-published: available at lulu.com.
McGrath, A.E. (1999), Christian Spirituality, Oxford: Blackwell
Schultze, Q.J. (2004), High-Tech Worship? Using Presentational Technologies Wisely,
Grand Rapids: Baker Books
CRTA – Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics (n.d.), The Heidelberg Catechism, [online], Available at http://www.reformed.org/documents/heidelberg.html

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wannabepriest / Reflections from #cnmac12
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[…] soon as tickets were available, and as it turned out I ended up going as a contributor, leading a seminar on ancient-future lessons and what the Tradition of the church has to say to us […]

[…] St John of Damascus, one of my fave writers on technology, develops this argument even further and suggests that giving honour to such images of Jesus, Mary his mother and the saints allows the giver of honour to partake in the grace of God ?that was at work in these people. “By itself [the image] deserves no worship, but if someone portrayed in an image is full of grace, we become partakers of the grace according to the measure of the faith” (St John, 1980: 36, my emphasis) […]

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