Culture At Large

Images, icons and faith

Allison Backous Troy

Images are powerful. More than “holding a thousand words,” as the adage goes, images carry a power and weight that can strike us to the core. They speak to the depths of our emotional, social and spiritual lives in ways that we cannot always verbalize, but which impact us nonetheless.

I think about the work of Ryan Spencer Reed, or photos of Bob Dylan from his early days, sunglasses perched on his hawk nose, one hand on the guitar, the other delicately balancing a cigarette. They make me recall memories and associations and strike me in a way that speaks to my intuition and my perception, what I feel and what I know about the image presented to me.

In the life of the world, many images have become iconic, raised to a particular status that makes the image withstand the changes of time and place, meaning and association. The scholar Martin Kemp, in his book “Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon,” traces several images from Western history that have held our attention. Martin pays attention to images both religious and cultural and offers history on how those images gained a foothold in our minds: images of Christ in Eastern Orthodox icons; the American flag; the Coca Cola logo.

Because of, and sometimes in spite of, the stories that shaped these images, they stand as representatives of not only a particular brand or nation, but of the ideas and values that weave themselves into these images. And, after surveying Kemp’s book, I wondered about my own relationship to images and, more specifically, how images have shaped my faith.

I became a Christian in high school and attended a church that did not look kindly upon Christian traditions that used images in worship. It wasn’t until I went to college, where I was given a stronger exposure to the ways that Catholics and Orthodox Christians appropriate images in worship, that I could tease out the fairly polemic view that my first church offered.

I learned the difference between “worship” and “veneration” and realized that these other traditions understand images as tools for, not objects of, worship - that they invite the viewer into the Biblical narrative in a way that arrests both mind and heart and that brings the viewer to a richer, fuller encounter with that narrative. I visited Greece, where monasteries that were well over 1,000 years old lined the walls with icons, the smoky incense cloaking the ancient, gilded paint. I was brought to view images as windows of mystery that deepened and encouraged my faith.

And it helped me to encounter the many images that mark my life in the Reformed church. Protestants carry so many images, too, though they might not look as vibrant as the images I have encountered in other traditions.

There’s the image of bread and cup; the image of the baptismal font; the image of rainbow, of the cross, of a dove. When I made my profession of faith, I was given a bronze cross with images of hands carved around the cross’s edges, each holding a loaf of bread.

In the whole of my Christian life, I have been surrounded by images that, through their history and my own encounters, have taken on significant meaning for me. They describe what I cannot always proclaim with clear words, but which carry weight and significance all their own.

Our positions on the use of images in Christian life and worship might be different, but it is true that, for all of us, images take on certain roles in the way we worship and believe. This Advent, how will you approach the images you do (and do not) encounter? What images have shaped you, and what questions do you carry?

(Cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press.)

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