Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Icons, Icons, Everyone

A happy new year to all.

Firstly, please pray for the citizens of Kenya who, following a neck-and-neck election, suffered rioting and, most tragically of all, the death of dozens who were seeking sanctuary in a church (Story HERE). We Orthodox have been blessed with much growth in the Church in Africa in general, and Kenya in particular. Lord, have mercy.

Secondly, Fr. Stephen has just posted an excellent article on Iconoclasm and its persistence in history HERE. Worth a read, given what I'm about to post, as Fr. Stephen's posts are always much more eloquent and thorough than my ramblings...

The theme that caught my eye in Fr. Stephen's post is the same one that's been floating around for several weeks now: the theme of man as an icon of God, as the incarnate image of God. I remember when, a year or so ago, I read yesterday's gospel passage and had an epiphany of sorts that, truth be told, was embarrassing, since it took my becoming Orthodox to "get it," while there are many, many other Christians out there (I'm sure) who got it right away. The passage reads thus:

Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him
in His words. When they had come, they said to Him, "Teacher, we know that
You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men,
but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or
not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?"

But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why do you test Me? Bring
Me a denarius that I may see it." So they brought it. And He said to them,
"Whose image and inscription is this?"

They said to Him, "Caesar's."

And Jesus answered and said to them,
"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are
God's." And they marveled at Him. (St. Mark 12:13-17).

Christ's rebuke places the emphasis on what it needs to be: man has lost the ability to lift himself, and all others, and all our lives up unto Christ our God, all the while thanking Him for a life in which he can know and be known by those who are outside of him, other than him, yet mystically be one with him. To take it that necessary step further, man no longer acknowledges that this life begins, abides, and finds its supreme end in mystical union with the One who is wholly Other, the One who is ever-apart yet breathtakingly imminent, the One who, in His artistry and craftmanship, bent over clay and breathed His icon into us. To borrow Chekov's phrase , the "blighted image" that we are now is an affront to that divine creativity and ends, of course, with everything from an impaling of the Firstfruit to a Tree to a burning of the brethren in Kenya.

We are commanded to "give honor to whom honor is due" by St. Paul, yet this in no way diminishes from the honor we are to give from God. "God is glorified in His saints," the Psalmist says--and here I cannot help but note the difference between the Greek text of the Old Testament and the Hebrew used by other communions: the Orthodox read God being glorified "in His holy ones" while other translations based on Hebrew declare God to be glorified "in His holy sanctuary" or "holy places"--certainly not with any other being, much less a created one! Yet it is this same psalmist who, as king, was honored along with God by the people of Israel -- truly, he was given glory for giving glory, and this was seen as good.

Fr. Stephen notes that iconoclasm usually is coupled with a stated "protection of God's honor." The gnostic heretics of the first few centuries of Christianity "protected" it from the appalling notion of God's taking onto himself matter, a body, which was considered beneath the Ideal One.

The iconoclastic heretics of the eighth and ninth centuries "protected" it from the idea that the Transcendent One could be physically depicted using physical means; such a "limitation," in their minds, circumscribed the uncircumscribable (though the Scriptures themselves bear witness to the fact that Christ Himself is the eikon tou theou -- the express image of the invisible God.

The puritans, as noted by Fr. Stephen, sought to purge England of statues, images, holy days, etc. This type of iconoclasm, begun by these reformers of reformers and contiunued on today, is a more developed iconoclasm which sought to destroy any sign of a "culture of faith" which carried the gospel. The faith, they said, could be (and must be) deconstructed and separated from any human cultural construct, since any contact with things not specifically mentioned in the pages of Holy Writ must needs be a corruption of the formerly pure expression of the faith (the fact that the faith honored and kept by Christ and passed onto the Apostles had undergone massive cultural influence from Persian and Babylonian sources somehow escaped them).

In this case, the "earthy," physical contribution of man through his art, through his music, through his architecture, was seen to be a suitable vehicle for communicating the faith through the world. Not the least of these things was seen to be the holy icons, whose "artistic language," developed over time, expressed the gospel in its fullness in spite of its not being explicitly delineated in Scripture and its being a development in which men played a part.
Icons are, truly, an incarnational expression of the faith, in which man has played a part in expressing the truth that Christ is, by nature, the glory of God made flesh, and the saints are, by grace, that same enfleshed glory. (Holy St. Seraphim, who in the flesh saw the light of Tabor, pray to God for us).

We are, in every aspect of our lives, to reflect this glory. Some things are already on their way -- for example, my friend and I were discussing the idea of the curandera in latin american cultures which has been largely ignored by the Roman Catholic Church. While we need to be careful of things which detract from the communication of the gospel (such as the syncretism that uses Christian forms to worship pagan gods which is prevalent in Latin America), we also need to be aware of things -- like, say, a trinitarian prayer for the healing of a sick person which is already in use by curanderas -- that could be "baptized" and used to communicate the faith to those who already have the cultural form available. Orthodox, not being so strictly tied to clerical necessity as the Roman Church tends to be (we can, for example, have laymen or lay monastics as spiritual advisors), would at least be more open to including something like this in communicating the gospel through this "lay ministry," affirming a revered figure in the already-existing culture (Granted, this may be an example of it being "easier to ask forgiveness than permission," as a priest or individual bishop may have to allow it at the local level before the Church at large would accept it later, but this, too, has precedent).

Other cultural aspects -- like the "joyful sorrow" in many bluegrass penitential songs -- are quite compatible already with Orthodox sensibilities.

How is all this to be accomplished? I see CD after CD of "Jesus Quotient" music cranked out by a music industry in the image and likeness of our culture's mass music industry; the idea, here, is to take a genre of music as presented by the major labels of this country, imitate it as closely as possible in all its commercial uniformity, and market it to Christian youth as "their" Christianity. All this is, however, is another step towards having no authentic paradosis, or tradition -- literally, the Greek means "that which is handed down from person to person" -- all is given to them by some faceless, pastless corporation with no capacity for embodying anything. To embody something, we must needs have a body. This is not a call to individualism; rather it is a call to radical community, to a radical determination to recover a family memory, to make true, kin-to-kin, ancestor-to-descendant paradosis possible.

My family hails from Texas, my wife's from Kentucky. She, more than I, was blessed with a closer memory of rural Kentucky life (one set of her grandparents still live in a very small town; the other surviving grandmother lives in a mostly blue-collar/old-money-aristocracy southern town. From both sides she's gleaned some of the songs and some of the sayings unique to this part of the States, and she's going to pass those onto our girls. (Side note: for those of you interested who've not yet read it, THIS POST from the Ochlophobist is worth a read to extrapolate on this idea). This uniqueness of expression, from local customs to dishes to crafts to instruments, is what makes us creative; the same creativity that molded Adam and animated his being is what still churns in us, still calls us to creativity, still calls us to pick up slide guitar or mandolin and play the old songs, using them to make new songs, to live in communion with ones who share our flesh and to communicate as an icon of culture the whole of our lives -- including and first and foremost the One Who Is our Life -- to those companions in the flesh.


David said...

I think that it is very important for missionary work that the culture of a people be respected and, as much as is possible, worked within to spread the Gospel. I have seen many great examples of this, such as a Catholic missionary priest, who studied under a Russian Orthodox iconographer, to the Native Americans of the southwest who paints icons using their traditional colors and symbols. Very importantly also, he depicted Christ and Mary as people who LOOK LIKE the Native Americans. This is a factor often missed in missionary work.

I think that many also miss the chance to reach an entire generation when they condemn the music and dress of "today's kids." Blessed Father Seraphim Rose's "Death to the World" ( is one of the great ideas I've ever heard. I wish that somebody would do something similar for hip hop culture.

Rhology said...

Whoa, that Death to the World thing is awesome!

More of that stuff is needed.

David Bryan said...


Welcome to the blog, and thanks for posting. I'll definitely be linking to your blog. Thank God you're going through the catechumenate; any date for baptism and/or chrismation coming up?

A man I sponsored used to be down in Kileen--he's now studying at Holy Cross in Boston.

Yes, the DTTW folks are sorely needed; the idea that Christ demands all and that this world is, by and large, committed to the exploitation of all (especially the youth) is a largely ignored concept, sadly. As a teacher in urban Ft. Worth, I have my reservations about hip-hop, not that it's a lost cause, but...I've been burned by some of the "Christian gangsta rap" I've seen out there; most of it just seems to be the same pride and chest-beating one-upmanship, just either (1) directed at demons (Lord, have mercy!) or other people. Not sure what aspects of that are redeemable within Orthodoxy (some things do have to be set aside, of course, when we come to Christ), but it'd be interesting how we'd reconcile "gettin' crunk" with hesychasm and considering ourselves the chief of sinners.

David, if you have any insights into this--seeing as how you're a rapper and all--I'd love to read them.

David Bryan said...

Also, The Illumined Heart has a podcast with the DTTW kids featured. David, you've probably heard it already, but I just thought I'd post it HERE.

David said...

Thank you very much for linking to me. No date set for baptism/chrismation yet. We've been catechumens for 6 months now so still got some more to go.
Appreciate you directing me to that podcast, as well. I hadn't heard that before and it was great to listen to it.

I'm not sure if I can answer your question very well. I've thought long and hard about it myself, but am still unsure of what the best way to teach hip hoppers about the Orthodox faith would be.

I think that, in the end, it might not be as difficult as you think. I'm almost certain it would be easier than a ministry oriented towards punk rock culture.

Hip hop, generally, does not tolerate atheistic or "satanic" references, which seem to be so popular in punk and heavy metal. A rapper who tried to convey an overtly satanic or atheistic message would, at a minimum, be ignored and/or ridiculed. Also, there is no bias against overt references to faith. Note songs like DMX's "Convo" in which he raps a conversation between himself and God, Paul Wall's "Just Paul Wall" in which he raps "I kept my faith in God, even in my younger days
I gave my life to Christ, got down on my knees and prayed," or T.I.'s "Prayin' for Help" which begins with him praying the Our Father. There are many more examples, but I chose these specifically because their "big names" in the mainstream and these songs which I mentioned are among their most well-known, popular songs. The market is there.

The primary problem with Christian ministries to hip hop which already exist, in addition to the issues you mention, is that they come off as "cheesy" in the end. There's always been a fine line in hip hop, one which so-called "conscious" rappers like Common, Talib Kweli and Mos Def walk, between "preaching" and "teaching." Rappers and groups like KRS-One, Brand Nubian, and De La Soul pioneered in the mid-late 80s a certain way of speaking "to" listeners and not "at" them. So-called "Christian hip hop" or "holy hip hop" as I've seen it called, too often speaks "at" people, not "to" them.

In the end, I think the best way to begin is through the "traditional" means hip hop has used: speaking and telling stories, to rhythm or otherwise, from personal experience. Keeping it simple and free from "corniness" is important.

David said...

I forgot to mention earlier the biggest example of the level of acceptance of overt religiosity within hip hop: Kanye West's huge hit "Jesus Walks."