Sunday, May 18, 2008

icons: Pentecostal, Evangelical and Catholic

I've never been particularly allergic to "icons", but found an essay by Frederica Mathewes-Green quite helpful. I can't find that on-line (it may have been in the first issue of Books & Culture), but did find an interview with her on the topic by Dick Traub in Christianity Today...

Anyway, I also liked this article by Lance Nixon in Touchstone...

In West Bend, Iowa, a short walk from the motel room we’d rented, with its view of cornfields and white granaries, my wife and I and our children visited the Grotto of the Redemption. We followed a path that led us past the Stations of the Cross and other images arranged, in relatively simple mosaics and stonework, to focus the visitor’s mind on the message of Christianity.

How fitting that the Ruler of the Universe, born in a manger, should be celebrated amid Iowa corn and hog farms. There was a stark nobility about it that brought to mind how Thomas Merton, not yet a Roman Catholic convert, described the Byzantine imagery that impressed him in churches in Rome.

The imagery was “without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it,” and “its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity—and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand.” He could not avoid guessing at those ends, however,

since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud. . . . For these mosaics and frescoes and all the ancient altars and thrones and sanctuaries were designed and built for the instruction of people who were not capable of immediately understanding anything higher.

It was deeply moving, but for a Pentecostal like myself, also strange. I returned at the end of that vacation glad that I could appreciate the aesthetics of Catholicism, but also content that within my own tradition, we eschew the use of images. Or do we?

I’ve long felt that those who criticize the simplicity of Pentecostal worship choruses don’t understand that they function in just the way Thomas Merton described those Byzantine mosaics. They fill a clear liturgical need that progresses from praise into worship, in very simple terms and imagery that any blue-collar worker can understand.

But it occurred to me after our trip to the Grotto that we Pentecostals (and Evangelicals, too) do, in fact, use “real” images in worship. At least in many churches, they are there every Sunday in the pictures projected onto screens at the head of the church, along with the words to our choruses. We just don’t think of them as “images” or use that term for them.

These “motions” or “backgrounds” usually show people worshiping, the cross, or scenes of nature. Looking at one distributor’s website, I see one that shows a man skylined against a line of hills flooded by sunlight and another that shows a man bowed forward on his knees in prayer in a church with sunlight falling on him from a deep narrow window.

Others show a worshiper with his arms stretched wide in a t-shaped, crucifixion gesture against a sunset sky; a man with outstretched arms standing on a rocky shore pounded by the ocean; a woman at the edge of a meadow, her arms lifted in praise; a man with his arms spread wide against a backdrop of clouds. Another shows a congregation with hands lifted; another is simply an image of hands held open toward heaven; yet another shows a woman with her clothes billowing in the wind and her arms slightly behind her, bathed in sunlight.

If I had to try to put into words the theme of these images, it might be that worship is a way of life, that it takes place regardless of setting, and that fervency, honesty, and humility in worship is desirable. I don’t think any of that is specifically Pentecostal or Evangelical....

Yet this trend raises questions: Can a style of worship be exalted instead of that which its practitioners profess to worship? Could worshipers, in a sense, end up worshiping themselves worshiping, and is that what is going on when we display these images at the front of our congregations?

During the two years in which I tried to attend a non-Pentecostal church, that was the complaint I heard from non-charismatic Evangelicals. They were bothered by what they perceived as the Pentecostal/Charismatic influence in their own worship services, both in the worship choruses they chose to sing, with words about lifting up hands and dancing and bowing down, and in the accompanying worship backgrounds. A particular style of worship can become an idol, one man said during a Sunday school class.

That may be true, perhaps in other traditions as well as my own—yet I don’t think that’s what is happening here. After all, one of the names for these pictures is “backgrounds”—they are only aids to worship, not the focus. This “new” trend might be at least as old as the Psalms, an endorsement of specific postures and acts that reflect the deep yearning of the human being to be a creature who worships the Creator and serves as the high priest of creation.

So while I find myself thinking that I align with Luther’s position on images—we are free to have them or not have them, but they are not to be worshiped, they are unnecessary, and we would be better off without them—yet I find that, in practice, my tradition is actually using images in worship in a way that traditions older than Protestantism might sanction....

What is endearing about the Pentecostal and Evangelical use of images is that they are of ordinary individuals, virtually anonymous, with nothing remarkable about them or the way they are dressed. The point is not to be able to identify them as individual “saints,” as with icons. In fact, the point seems to be not that the “saint” is worthy of honor or veneration, but that God is. The God who is worshiped is the unseen focal point of all those images of worshipers....

I suspect Pentecostals and Evangelicals will never build Grottos of the Redemption at the borders of Iowa cornfields. But we may share with older traditions a picture of what life in Christ is to be.


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