Thursday, 30 May 2013

Graven images

Aagh!  I have been thinking about a variety of things, turning them over slowly in my mind, wanting to talk to you about them but not yet having come to a clarity.

And now look what’s happened!  An emergency editing project has landed on my desk – oh yes, 85,000 words to be turned around in a fortnight!  Gulp.  So if you wonder where I am over the next few days, now you know.

But something I have been mulling over, and coming to no conclusions, is the teaching in Deuteronomy (and elsewhere) on graven images.

Personally, I love graven images, and have cheerfully ignored this teaching all my life.  I know that in Judaism and Islam they still observe this commandment, and following through lectionary readings from Deuteronomy in Morning Prayer has made me think about it.

This is one of these teachings – like headcovering and women keeping silence in the great assembly – that seems to make no real sense.  Broadly in the church it’s ignored – as are the teachings on divorce and usury – but I wonder . . .

I have been thinking, if we could do this . . . if we could get back to biblical living, what would it be like?

I know there are things in the Bible like stoning people to death and polygamous marriage that seem like a less good idea, but following through into the teaching of Jesus and the apostles leads us out of those things just as Abraham led the people out of infant sacrifice.  I’m assuming we are taking seriously the teaching to bless not curse, to love and forgiveness, to patience and gentleness and peace.

In our church I have offered myself to preach.  It felt that the Lord was calling me to that again – but now, I wonder?  The word burns inside me when I keep silence in the great congregation, but . . . I wonder . . .  What is it that burns?  The word of life or my need to offer an opinion on every possible occasion?

And graven images.  When I thought about it, graven images create something small in our spirituality, diminishing the focus of our faith.  In making to ourselves no graven images, could we be taking steps towards entering the intimacy of mystery, learning to know the unseen God, encounter the invisible?  Might graven images pander always to our penchant for metaphor, for definition, pigeonholing the limitless divine into the frame of reference that starts and ends with me?  When I make to myself graven images, they reflect my preferences, my aesthetic, my culture – my choices; this saint and not that.  

“Behold the Lamb of God” – before we make a graven image of that, how large a concept it is!  Lamb that is roast meat smoking on the altar – the bleeding Christ raised on his cross in the midday heat of Palestine, “I thirst”.  A newborn lamb all in a radiance of innocence – the vulnerable, helpless Christ in the manger, reaching out to us in His purity, not almighty now but at our mercy.  The Lamb upon the throne – accepting the reign of simplicity in the Peaceable Kingdom.  But the minute we have a graven image, all the possibilities are reduced by what we see – usually a sheep with a flag.

Buddhists speak of “the uncarved block” – the limitless potential of that which has not yet been carved or shaped.  Perhaps that’s why God prohibited the formation of graven images – because they stunt our imagination, causing us to see so little, to set our sights too low, to content ourselves with what is seen, what is physical.  They get between us and Mystery, obscuring our view.  I wonder.


Anonymous said...

Buddhists speak of “the uncarved block” – the limitless potential of that which has not yet been carved or shaped. Perhaps that’s why God prohibited the formation of graven images – because they stunt our imagination, causing us to see so little, to set our sights too low, to content ourselves with what is seen, what is physical. They get between us and Mystery, obscuring our view.

... can I say My Friend, that is here that you have answered the question I have always had about this issue. If we create something that is pleasing to the eye, we have diminished the Great I Am to our small imagination. He is so much more! My imagination can not grasp all that He is and continues to be in my life.

I used to bow down to them, many, many moons ago. Then I realized that this image I was seeing with my eyes, was taking the place of the God I so loved. It was replacing Him with a man-made God that has kind eyes and rosy cheeks. I have reduced His Essence.

Thank you for sharing my friend. m.

Pilgrim said...

I have wondered about this, too, having come into contact with more Catholic and Orthodox believers in recent years. Their use of icons has been interesting to me, but doesn't seem to be a way of moving forward, for me, anyway. As you say, it seems limiting, being filtered through someone else's perception of reality, usually someone of a different time and culture.

There was more argument for them in a pre-literate culture, but the commandment was probably not given to generally literate people, was it? Striving to get people to look beyond the given to the Giver...

Ganeidaz Knot said...

I personally need to be careful of this one because I am an extremely visual learner & it is easy for my heart to become attached to what my eyes see.

A read a story once of viewing these sort of things [things that can cause our personal downfall]as travelling a wide road around a mountainside with a cliff on one side. When not sure it is safest to hug the mountainside. I tend to do that until I get greater clarity on the issue that is bothering me.

Elin Hagberg said...

I like religious paintings and icons but as decorations, I don't like it when priests make them part of service by displaying them by the alter or talking too much about them. I feel very uncomfortable in more decorated church buildings than the one I mostly go to, I don't want all of that fuzz really. Too many decorations and pictures get in the way for me and like you say, they do make you lose some of your imagination and they only show one aspect of things.

Ember said...

Thanks for your good thoughts, friends! "Fuzz", Elin - I like that; graven images as white noise. Yes, I think that may be so.

Anonymous said...

For me, the world would be much more dreary without all the beautiful graven images. Renaissance painters and all that. The Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. And the, omigosh, there is all that wonderful Hindu and Buddhist iconography, with all the beautiful colors and the outlandish images. I love that stuff. And, in all of it, I see God at work, creating so many varieties of images that, if I don't relate to this one, hold on a second and another will show up. And yeah, the Islamic calligraphy and geometrical adornments are pretty wonderful also.

I think a lot about context. Here were all these religions around the region, with all their idols and such. And, in order to distinguish himself from them, he insisted that there be no idols made of him.

Now, I'm pretty big on worshiping "in truth and in Spirit." I don't need any of those representations, as much as I like them, and most of us don't.

Whereas the religions of Baal and Astarte and all those were very much wrapped up in needing those idols for proper worship to take place. So it turns out God was onto something. Again. As usual.

I doubt that Giotto and Rafael are burning in hell though for having given us those lovely madonnas and saints and such.

Suze said...

This issue is one I ponder on. Images fill our world. I have always preferred a simpler church environment as I find statues and images intrusive. I have a memory of attending a wedding and spending most of the service trying to avoid looking at a clock. I have yet to find an answer. My grandfather was a stone mason and I have even studied sculpture.

Ember said...

Hello friends :0)

Interesting thoughts.

I feel much the same way, Bruce. I have graven images in my home, mostly buddhas. They are not for worshipping of course, though evangelical friends get alarmed by them and believe them to be idols. They express the peace of the awakened soul, and I find they speak to me, call that peace into being in me. Maybe the key is, as you said, "needing those idols for proper worship to take place". Perhaps, like almost everything on the Journey, you can only have it once you no longer need it.

Suze - yes, I like simplicity in the worship space too. I can't get on with Westminster Abbey because it's so cluttered with plaques and statues it looks like some monolithic cupboard under the stairs. One of my favourite places for meeting for worship is here (New Jordans in Buckinghamshire):

I love Langley Chapel in Shropshire too, though I have never been there, only seen the pictures:

Anekha said...

I have some thoughts on this. Not specifically graven images, but the broader idea of how literally to follow the teachings of the bible. That some things don't seem to fit and then at times you feel drawn to observing Faith more deeply and have to struggle with how that outward and inward expression of Faith should appear. I have to admit my views are greatly influenced by my Bahá'i Faith. It all ties in to our belief in progressive revelation. That is that God has sent us many messengers over time and that they have each renewed the teachings of the past but taught the next stage.
We have a belief that there are essential spiritual truths, that is the things God will teach us that will never change. And then ephemeral social constructs, the things that at particular eras in human history and for particular people and purposes he has taught certain lessons. So things like covering the head, graven images, not eating particular foods. they have a certain relevance to the time and place and the people God revealed those things too. I always use the analogy of teaching a child. When they are young you teach them in absolute terms, do this, but not that. Don't touch this. The rules are simple and strict and are there to protect and nurture the child in the correct way. When they are older they learn all the shades of grey and discern how to behave responsibly.
I teach my son the same way. He must NEVER touch the oven... for obvious reasons. But when he is older he will of course be taught how to touch the oven and when he does learn how he will be free to use it whenever he wants. We choose what our children wear as a child, when they are older they choose for themselves.
So I would look at the teachings from the old testament as being relevant to Jews, the new testament to christians, The laws of the vedas to Hindus, the laws of the Koran to Muslims etc... But also perceive the common thread of Gods message of love in all. My husband always says to me(having been raised a Christian and only now, rather suddenly deciding he is also a Bahái) That Christ gave very few instructions about what his 'Church' should look like, the form worship should take, or the laws people should follow. His was a powerful and simple message.
The Bahá'i Faith teaches that humanity has reached its adolescence when it comes to religion and its relationship with God. So I believe that some teachings that at various times were definite laws, are now not binding, in the sense that we are able to discern for ourselves the right course of action and bear the responsibility for ourselves.
We are encouraged to express ourselves freely in art and music and are encouraged to channel our love of our Faith into these pursuits. But even so, there are no images or representations of Bahá'u'lláh. Because he still, for our protection and not his requirement, sees that we would have a tendency to idolise. We are taught to worship the spirit and not the name. You won't find Bahá'is adopting particular styles of dress as an outward expression of our beliefs because the teaching is we should be identifiable by our good character, our honesty and our warm nature. Our virtues should be our only signs of Faith and deeds not words our adorning. It can be hard. Sometimes, it seems so appealing to just have these firm boundaries and enforced teachings, clergy to follow. But we have definately been trusted to steer our own course through His teachings. Just as Pilgrim said, in pre-literate societies they were an important teaching tool. But now may no longer seem relevant. I think that's how a lot of reformation denominations developed from people having access to the bible themselves and going beyond ritual and story. As Bahá'is we go one step further to no longer have clergy at all because we are a literate society and have access to the wisdom of the Lords teachings in all their immensity for ourselves. Means a lifetime of studying all the sacred texts of the worlds religions.

Anekha said...

part 2: i had a lot to say sorry (blame late night ramblings)
I respectfully don't agree that creating something that is pleasing to the eye will diminish Gods majesty in any way. In fact, I don't believe anything we do has that power. He is and always will be. If we recognise that nothing we create will ever come close then it will always be a humble offering of worship. The devotion with which religious art is painted is always apparent in the art. religious icons can have just as much expression of devotion as an elaborate islamic mosaic (the geometry represented God). I can really feel the difference ( being raised with a Hindu mum) between sacred sculptures of the Buddha and the mass produced concrete mould made buddhas found in garden centres. I think the potency comes in what the image means to you. Not being a Christian, images of the crucifix seem positively gory and affronting and horrifying to me but I know to Christians it can be a comforting reminder of His sacrifice.
The important thing is if having the images become a barrier or veil between you and God, with the images being the object of worship and not the God they represent. I feel that we have the wisdom and clarity to discern that and that it will be different for different people.

Anekha said...

PS: so I am assuming from the purple outfit you are now a servant of Jesus? All the best in your service to God!

Ember said...

Thank you for taking the trouble to write these thoughts - that's really interesting and helpful. Also perhaps, in Jesus "very few instructions about what his 'Church' should look like, the form worship should take, or the laws people should follow. His was a powerful and simple message", as you said, He was encouraging us to rely on His holy Spirit for our direction rather than lots of rules. As George Fox said, "Christ has come to teach His people Himself". Here I think the Quaker way is so wise, of listening in silence, attending, waiting on the Holy Spirit's quiet voice within. x

Ember said...

Ooh - I nearly missed these further comments - they get stacked in Gmail and are sometimes easy to miss. What you said - "The important thing is if having the images become a barrier or veil between you and God, with the images being the object of worship and not the God they represent. I feel that we have the wisdom and clarity to discern that and that it will be different for different people." - yes, I think that must be the heart of it.

And yes - my anointing as a Servant With Jesus is on June 30th :0) x

Daisyanon said...

I have just thought that perhaps all our words about God, our liturgies and the importance we sometimes place on the exact formula, and who can say what words in what circumstances.....

all these too are forms of graven images and idolatry, or can be.

Maybe it is a matter of our 'attachment' and not the form?

Ember said...

Yes - the desire to fix something - to create stasis from what should be flowing by nature - like Peter at the Mount of transfiguration, 'Shall we build three little shelters, one for You, one for Moses, one for Elijah?' Missing the point writ large.

gail said...

Hi Ember,
What would your thoughts be on just having a cross in church or in our home.For some I guess it might be a distraction. I have a simple little cross on the wall in our kitchen. It often makes me think of the sacrifice He made for me. As if it is saying "remember".
Blessings Gail

Ember said...

:0) Hi Gail. I don't really have thoughts about you having a cross in your home. I am just wondering - I haven't come to any conclusions. The graven images prohibition in the Bible speaks about images of living beings - humans or other animals. The whole thing is more puzzling the more I think about it.

Anekha said...

Oh I love the discussions people have here, and the interesting things that come to your mind Ember. What daisyanon said really gets me thinking. Perhaps that is the essence of it. its the attachment and not the image or icon that is the issue. I suppose if we were able to have pure-hearted devotion and not divert from our longing for God for any earthly distraction than theoretically anything would be fine. It is just that in practice we are far from that.

Ember said...

Hi friend.

Yes. Yes BUT.

I agree wholeheartedly with Daisy - what you said: "its the attachment and not the image or icon that is the issue"


My own forays into simplicity have taught me that ownership and attachment are conjoined twins. Everywhere I go in the church I hear people saying it doesn't matter how much stuff/clutter/money/status they have, as long as they are not attached to it in their hearts. And I listen politely, and I think secretly "Yeah, right, chum. Who are you kidding?"

We may not be attached to our possessions, but find to our surprise that our possessions get attached to us. It's right there in the word "our".

People say "I am not attached to my possessions at all". One replies: "Get rid of them then, live more lightly, be more flexible, take up less space." And it's "Ooh no, I couldn't possibly do that . . ."

And that's what attachment is.

I suspect this is why God said "Right, that's it, guys; no more graven images." All things attach to us, and none more so than thise with faces.

Jules said...

very interesting thoughts. it is very hard write out what I want comment so I will use this article to help. its on the Proper use of Icons in an Orthodox Church.
I think when God talked about graven images it was like you say of things made out of stone and etc because in the Temple there was images all over and God commanded them to have Cherubim and Seraphims on the veils and the mercy seat and other things. there is a very old Synagogue I forget where that has Old Testament Icons on the walls. I think this article too will help. blessings!

Ember said...

Thanks for the links, Jules. Yes, I wondered about the angels carved in the temple too. I am wondering if a Hebrew scholar could throw some light on this - wondering if 'graven image' might be a more specific term than first appears, like the Hindu term 'idol' which means a form crafted specifically for worship.
I think it is significant that people speak of 'writing' (not painting/drawing) icons - that in a sense they are a pictorial message pointing beyond themselves, not really something for us to engage with or direct our reverence toward. Though indeed they are revered.

Sandy said...

Hello friends! I've been a reader of Pen's blog and books (which I love)for some time now, but never commented. This post spoke to me, so here goes.

In recent years, I have even become somewhat uncomfortable with regular old photographs and the taking of pictures. Anytime I go to an event of some sort, I watch as people view the activities of the event through the lenses of their smartphones, Ipads, digital cameras and video recorders. Very few people just take in the action with their own two eyes anymore. And it's like that all over. Parents doll their children up in special outfits for special pictures regularly (at least here in America) and it's a BIG DEAL. Everyone's birthday party now requires a theme, a special outfit and a professional picture. It seems as if people are removed from actually participating in the present moment in pursuit of capturing an image that can be displayed as proof of, well, what? Success? a beautiful child? attending a special event? I don't know. Is this another form of ownership? I own this image?

I still take pictures myself, but not like I used to. Also, in my pursuit of living simply I cleaned out hundreds of pictures taken in my childhood and college days. It's hard to throw away someone's "image" (although it got easier with the moment of simplifying.) It feels a little like desecration even though it's just a piece of photo paper with an image on it.

Hope that makes sense and I didn't ramble too much!

Ember said...

Hi Sandy - good to meet you! One of the things I like about the electronic revolution is that photos are not physical, if you see what I mean.
I too feel odd about destroying a photograph. And I don't like having family photos on view. We do have a box of them, which I now consider to belong to my children not me - what I want is the person and the memory, not the photo.
Similarly I am not keen of videos made of ceremonies - weddings, funerals, baptisms etc. This doesn't come up so much now as I no longer officiate at weddings - but occasionally people will ask of a talk or retreat I am leading will be recorded. And for reasons I can't explain even to myself, if feels important that, no, you will have to be there.
I understand what the Amish mean when they say someone who has photographed them has stolen their soul.
I more often than not put photos of myself here on my blog, which is so you and I can meet - be together - when you come here. But I, like you, have an uneasy relationship with photos. x

Sandy said...

Pen (may I call you Pen? You are an author, so I feel I should call you Ms. Wilcock as I've never actually had a conversation with an author I admire before!)

Yes, I see what you mean, and I, too, like the fact that photos are digital now and much easier to keep under control. I can also delete the bad ones and keep the nicer ones. I also don't feel like I'm tearing up a picture like I do when I get rid of a physical copy.

I also don't care for videos of events. My husband and I have chosen not to video our daughter's big moments and to just enjoy the moments instead. I even got rid of the video of our wedding because it was such poor quality and I preferred my memories of it to the video.

That's interesting about the Amish feeling as though their soul has been stolen from a photo. I knew they didn't like photos being taken but I did not know why. I visited some Amish in Iowa last summer while visiting my brother and his family. They are completely fascinating. : )

I do have some family photos up in our home, but they are limited to two shelves. For a while I tried to frame every photo we were given, but finally gave up. The top shelf is for grandparents and second for our siblings. This has helped our daughter to recognized her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents since we are all spread out and do not see one another often. So there is a practical aspect to photographs. : )

I enjoy your photos and love all the different shades of purple you are wearing now. : )

Sandy said...

Sorry to message you again, but I was wondering if I could write you an actual letter? I've wanted to ever since I read In Celebration of Simplicity to share some of my thoughts, but just had not gotten around to contacting you yet. Thank you!


Ember said...

Hi Sandy - yes, sure. Send me another message on here with your email address on. I will delete it not publish it, so your email address is not made public, then I will send you an email to the address you've sent me so you can write back to me. Nobody ever called me Ms Wilcock - even when I was still a minister of religion, a church pastor and school chaplain and whatnot, they all just called me Rev Pen. x

Linda said...

It may be one of those situations where if you don't have any around you for awhile you can see things more clearly.

Ember said...

Now that is a really good though. A fast from imagery to gaze upon the face of God. I like it!

Jenna said...

As usual, any "numbered sound byte" reference drives me to look at the context. and so then I look in the KJV but also the Hebrew Interlinear. The graven image spoken of in Exodus 20 (or is there another that you were referring to?) in Hebrew talks about a carving or representation and is sandwiched in between not having other gods and not bowing to any other than our Wonderful Creator. Something that occured to me is this: Did any of the disciples who walked with Yeshua, especially those would have later written gospels (Matthew and John) ever say, "Well, he was about 5'11 with dark curly hair, deep voice, brown eyes, with a mole on his left cheek"? Wouldn't it follow that people who were so passionate about Him and loved Him so much would have made a jotting or written a description somewhere? Even his enemies are not known to have recorded anything about His physical appearance other than those significant details from prophecy. For one thing, the Hebrew mind was about doing, versus being, but isn't it a wonder that no images or passages about Him seem to have been made by anyone? Just a thought...not sure where that rabbit's running.

Ember said...

Maybe people turn to descriptions of appearance when they don't really have anything else to say?
Thinking back to the years of my training for ordained ministry, I had two particular teachers whom I dearly loved and held in high esteem. I have often spoken of them to other people - especially the college principal who had such wisdom and humility, such gentleness, such scholarship - but when I come to think of it, I never have discussed with anyone what either of them looked like.

Jules said...

one of my friends on facebook posted an article that shows and talks about the Jewish Icons in the Synagogues and I thought I would pass it along!

Pen Wilcock said...

Thanks, Jules. These comment threads are brilliant. They're like archives of All The Useful Things You Need To Know On This Subject!! x

Jules said...

your welcome! Have a blessed filled day in the Lord!