Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Graven Images

Epiphany 2007

January 9, 2007
I’m still holding out. My antiqued nativity figures still light up the end of my driveway. I didn’t actually finish making them and setting them out until the week of Christmas, so I hate to take them down right away.

Last year my sister mentioned buying a plastic yard nativity and antiquing it. That sounded like a good idea, so I (and my sister-in-law) collected Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Wise Men, a camel, a sheep, a donkey and a cow.

In early December, I unpacked my nativity and began painting. The process included applying a primer coat of paint, then applying a copper coat and finally adding a dark antique stain that I would rub off with paper towels. This project gave me opportunity to do something with my hands instead of sitting at a keyboard or reading a book.

As I painted, I reflected on the stories and waited for inspiration. I’ve heard monks often pray and meditate while kneading bread, and this seemed like a perfect exercise for reflection while I worked.

But nothing came to me.

I painted, I stained, and I photographed my progress, but somehow the deep insights seemed hidden away. The only thing that came to mind was how the cow reminded me of the golden calf in Exodus. Surely, there must be some other great insight I could gain from this effort. A graven image on display for Christmas doesn’t seem inspirational.

Night after night, I reflected and the graven image idea returned again and again.

Gradually I began to consider what is a graven image? What is an idol? It is a form, a representation and image of the real, but it lacks one vital thing: breath, pneuma, spirit. It’s void of life.

God forbid the ancient Hebrews from creating graven images, and Jeremiah warns that “every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14). Without breath, without spirit, these images are simply forms—not persons.

God is person, and a person cannot be contained in a spiritless image. So when God chose to create an image of Himself, he breathed into it. Created in the image and likeness of God, humans are persons—not graven images. We are vital, living, changing and reproducing beings. When Adam gives birth to Seth the scriptures say, “he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image.”

Just as God creates humans in His own image and likeness, humans create other humans in their image and likeness. A graven image cannot reproduce. It has no vital life. It has no animating spirit. It is frozen in time.

Each year we revisit the stories of Mary and Joseph through plays, nativities, and Scripture readings. Each year we join them in the journey to Bethlehem. Over time, it may be easy to forget that these were real people with real challenges. They may have lived in a different time and different culture, but they still faced the basic struggles of being human. In other words, they weren’t so very different from us.

And yet, they were caught up into a grand drama that occupies our imagination year after year after year. Our nativities can serve as reminders, signposts or snapshots of a moment in time. But Joseph, Mary and Jesus are not suspended in that moment. They lived, and as they lived they faced all the struggles of living in spite of the miraculous tale.

We face the danger of reducing the Biblical characters to graven images, to mere representations, to 2 dimensional figures in a morality play trying to teach us a lesson. We face the danger of forgetting these are stories about real people. When we do so, they seem to tower above us as some mythical cast of characters who lived divinely inspired lives in spite of their faults.

Yet, in reality, they were humans: real people with real struggles unaware of being caught up in the divine drama. And I suspect, most of us, most of the time live our lives unaware that we are caught up in a divine drama.

Just as God breathed into Adam, he breathed into us. That breath, that pneuma, that animating spirit is a vital, reproducing life bestowed on us by God. We are real persons created in the image and likeness of God. We are not graven images.

Jesus came as the perfect, complete image bearer. Jesus came to restore the image of God in us corrupted by sin. Jesus breathes upon His disciples and tells them, “Receive the Spirit.” He restores the vital, animating life of God within His people.

I fear sometimes that we may not always treat one another as real, vital persons created in the image and likeness of God. Instead, we might at times reduce one another to graven images, to mere representations. So we get angry when someone doesn’t act the way we expect, the way our “image of them” suggests they should act.

We may expect them to perform just as the image in our mind suggests they should perform, but they are not that image. They are real people—separate from us with a unique mind and body and spirit. And it is possible, and in fact probable that they will not always see the world as we do. Just as Paul and Barnabas did not always see eye to eye—neither will we.

As we learn to appreciate the people in our lives, we must give them grace to be the people God created them to be. We must trust that the same Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit who groans and works within us, is working in them. They are not created in our image but in the image of God.

As we enter the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the revealing of God to the world in the person of Jesus. I would hope we might also celebrate the image of God in the people of God around us. I would hope that we might remember that each of us have been created in the image and likeness of God.

We are not graven images. We are corrupted images. The nativity tells the story of Jesus coming as the perfect image. The cross tells the story of Jesus restoring and redeeming our corrupted images. The resurrection tells the story of Jesus breathing into His images His animating Spirit.

My nativity sits on the hill as a reminder of the difference between graven images and images of God. I am reminded afresh to acknowledge the persons in my life: my family, my friends, the clerk at the store, the officer giving me a speeding ticket, the waitress forgetting to refill my drink. These are not graven images, they are vital, glorious, wondrous images of God—some living in the reality of that redeeming love and others waiting to be embraced and told of that redeeming love.


John said...

Wow! Great post Doug! It certainly has made me think about the people around me, thanks for this.

Be encouraged.

truevyne said...

Dear Doug,
Your post reminds me of something from Jim Palmer's book Divine Nobodies or blog about a slow Wal Mart clerk and impatient customers. I was convicted in the same way then as I am by this post.
EVERYONE counts in the Kingdom of God.

Doug Floyd said...

I am not familiar with Jim Palmer's book but I will check on it now.

Milton Stanley said...

Please forgive me for the indelicate question, but why were graven images not all right for the ancient Israelites but they're all right for you?

Doug Floyd said...

Good question Milton.

Yet I hesitate to respond. Normally, I use my writings to reflect my devotional journey and am not interested in prolonged arguments. (I've seen it too often online and in the churches I grew up in. While proving they were Biblical people consistently violated the basic command to love one another. Respect vanished and opponents were demonized. That is not my intent.

I will answer the question to reveal my conviction, and yet at the same time, I understand other Christians can pray to the same God, study the same Bible and disagree with me.

The subtext of your question, assumes that I am making a one to one connection between graven images and my nativity, which I am not. I do not believe the nativity to be a graven image. From reading the passage, in the Old Testament, it seems clear the graven images are intended for worship. (Now there has been debate whether this law extended to all images or just ones related to false worship.)

Some argue that it is only images of worship for even God commands the use of images/statues/forms in the construction of the arc of the covenant.

My argument/question is how can we understand graven images today? Is it the forbidding of all art? I do not see that the New Testament. But I do see Paul arguing in Romans 1 the danger in reducing the glory of God to something in the image of created things.

As I wrestle with this idea, I see our tendency to reduce God from person to an image in our own mind. We lose sight that God is greater than any word, any concept and any idea we can use to explain him. So we must hold his revelation in Jesus (as the image of the unseen God) alongside the realization that we cannot grasp, control, or master Jesus through our ideas. Augustine suggested that any god we grasp is not really god. At the same, we cannot grasp, control, or master other human beings through our ideas.

Thus I come to see graven images through the cross as a thing of the heart and the tendency to reduce the person of God and the person of fellow humans to lifeless images instead of persons.

In the seventh century, the church wrestled deeply with images/icons and St John of Damascus argued in favor of icons by looking to Jesus' embrace of human flesh (both in the nativity and the resurrection). Jesus is the perfect image. Now I realize some reject the witness of the Fathers (but that is a whole different discussion and I am simply trying to explain how I have wrestled with this idea).

Milton Stanley said...

I don't want an argument either, Doug; I'm simply trying to understand everything in your essay. I respect you and your reflections. Thanks for the clarification. Peace.