THE NARROW WAY OF JESUS: OUR NEED FOR BOTH ICONS AND ICONOCLASM
By C. Christopher Smith
To Worship is to be transformed.
When we come into the presence of God, we cannot help but be transformed. Moses, for instance, was transformed by his encounter with God in the burning into the courageous leader of the Ancient Israelite people. At Pentecost, the economics and daily life of the Jerusalem community of Christ-followers was transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst them. Too often the aim of our gathered worship is to entertain or to comfort our members (or our visitors). Of course, there are some merits in the comforts of hospitality, but we need to be attentive to our primary aim of entering the transforming presence of God together.
How do the images of God that we present in our worship (and I’m using the term images broadly here to include our words and our music, along with literal images) orient our congregations toward God’s transforming presence with us? I’ve recently been inspired by the theological work of Natalie Carnes (Image and Presence), who suggests that the church needs both iconophilia — a love of images that transform us by pressing us deeper into the knowledge and life of God — and iconoclasm, the breaking of our false or destructive images of God. The church has a long history of veering toward one or the other of these extremes. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches are known for their icons that point worshippers to certain facets of God’s presence. In contrast, some early Calvinist streams of Protestantism were known for their vehement iconoclasm. Carnes, however, argues that our worship is most faithful when it embraces both icons and iconoclasm.
The New Testament epistles are filled with stories of these struggles. The story of Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius (Acts 10), is an extraordinary example of this tension of needing images and image-breaking. God calls Peter to not only go to the house of the Gentile Cornelius but also to eat whatever food is put before him there. In the call of God, Peter’s image of God — an image that took the form of God’s relationship with the Israelite people — was broken by God who desired to be with and to know Gentiles as well as Jews. Over time, the early Christian communities struggled to make a new image out of the one shattered in the Acts 10 story. An image of God dwelling with and being known by communities of both Jews and Gentiles.
In reflecting on this story of Peter in the house of Cornelius, theologian Willie Jennings notes in Acts: A Theological Commentary (119) the vulnerability of both holding images and expecting that some images will be broken. What does a way of worship look like that holds us in this vulnerable place, reminding us of the words and images that continue to shape us into the life of God, and yet open to the image-breaking presence of God that might at any moment shatter one of these images?
Let’s begin by exploring how our music and prayers can be icons that reveal God’s presence with us.
Our worship should be saturated with words and images that remind us of who God is. Jesus, God-become-flesh who took the form and the image of a human, should be at the heart of our worship. The Incarnation, although it gives us a particular image of Jesus who lived within time and space, also points us toward the paradox of God’s presence. The image of Christ that we have come to know in our reading of the Gospel stories of the life and teachings of Jesus, should be central to our worship.
In taking the bread and the cup together, we are holding up an image of Christ, an image of him broken and poured out for the life of God’s people. It is not surprising, given how scandalous this image is, that some churches today are eliminating communion or pushing it to the margins of their worship service. (One church that I know, for instance, hands out packets of bread and juice for its members to consume on their way out of the service or at home with their family.)
Whatever particular style of music a congregation uses, it should be well-done — a fitting offering for the king-of-kings — and remind us of the life and teachings of Jesus, whether in the forms of hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or “Up from the Grave He Arose,” or in the form of recent worship songs like the Rend Collective’s “Nailed to the Cross,” or anything in between. Our image of Christ need not be confined to the historical image offered in the Gospels. We might also celebrate Christ, the creator of all, or the ascended Christ, the king-of-kings who sits in all power at the right-hand of the Father.
In addition to holding up images like those of Christ, our worship should also contain some degree of iconoclasm, breaking down the false or destructive images we have of God. If we need inspiration in this regard, we need to look no further than Jesus, who was quite fond of breaking the images of God held by the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his day: eating with sinners, healing on the Sabbath, for instance. Jesus’s familiar teaching construct “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” is also a form of iconoclasm. As Christians in North America in the twenty-first century, our faith has been tarnished by many false images of God, ones shaped by the powers of individualism, consumerism, and nationalism, for instance. How can we plan forms of worship that break our images of God that have been shaped by these powers? Too many of the songs we sing traffic on the individualistic “Jesus and Me” image of God. What if we took a Sunday and sang only songs that used plural pronouns (we/our) instead of singular ones (I/my)? Or what if we took a familiar song, and swapped out the individual pronouns for plural ones? (e.g., “O for a thousand tongues to sing / our great Redeemer’s praise.”) Perhaps if we are too enamored with the image of Christ as conqueror and king, we might break that image a little by experimenting with Jesus’s servant-like practice of foot washing (some churches do this regularly, but not many). And dare I say it, if our image of God is becoming too familiar with the comforts of affluence, we might occasionally turn our focus upon the Gospel image of Jesus as homeless and with few possessions.
Although as worship leaders, we have been called to hold up and break images in the gathered worship of our congregations, we do this work best when we function as an attentive member of our church body. An eye or a liver does not function autonomously from the whole of the body but rather works for the health and well-being of the body. The images that we need to be reminded of, or need to break, are discerned by the body as a whole, through a variety of practices like preaching, teaching, and paying attention to our neighbors, our struggles, and our joys. Curating imagery in worship that attentively reflects God’s leading our congregation as a whole, can serve to temper our personal tendencies either to err too much toward comforting our church or toward a judgmental obsession with shattering images.
A fundamental part of this work of paying attention is being in regular conversation with pastors, lay leaders, youth, and other members of the church, listening to their perceptions of how God is leading and moving our community. What we hear in these conversations will help us discern the images that we need to focus on or that need to be broken. We may also, at times, have to defend the images we choose to elevate or to break, but that risk is part of the vulnerability of our calling.
The curating of images in worship is precarious work, it requires vulnerability of us as we follow in the narrow way of Jesus, and attentive eyes and ears that seek to discern God’s leading. Our faithfulness in this work will prepare the way for God’s transformation of our church. May we have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus, image-upholder, and image-breaker.