Investigating Images

A while back I read J. I. Packer’s book “Knowing God”. Apart from it being a really challenging book overall, and really making me reconsider what my aim was in reading the bible and how I approach theology,There was one chapter I found very interesting.

It was the chapter on images of God. The second commandment says that man is not to make graven images; traditionally that is interpreted as Idols. Packer was suggesting, however, that in creating images of God (generally the Father and the Son), we may come to condition our understanding of God. If this occurs, we are worhsipping God, as conformed to a human image, or limits/characteristics that humanity assigns.

When a viewer starts seeing an image (a painting, etc) of God as depictional rather than representational, this creates an image of God, and as no visual depiction can ever capture what God is like (or what he looks like), this can lead to a false perception of God.

This seems extreme (I remember the first time I read it, I thought he went too far). There certainly is a level to which it is true, however; the image of the white, tall, American Jesus speaking in a soft voice, with his brown beard and long hair, is the image that many a person would think of when they consider Jesus.

But why is that dangerous? If your conception of Jesus is influenced by some human creation, then you are in danger of Worshiping Jesus in the terms of the image. For example, if you are standing in church and you look up at the stained glass window of Jesus leading sheep, are you worshipping the Jesus revealed in the bible, or are you adding extra details to the Jesus who is the object of your faith?

There are obvious problems with this; in teaching kids, visual representations can be incredibly helpful. What about movies, pictures, etc. that use visual image to assist understanding and experience? It seems like images aren’t that simple.

Overall, I’m ok with images; movies and art that depict Jesus or the Father are OK in my book, as long as it is well understood by the audience that it is a mere symbolic representation, not a literal depiction. Maybe this is something that we need to focus on.

I think it helps that with any decent amount of thought, it becomes apparant that the images of Jesus we so often see are just ridiculous; he would not have been anglo, the chances are he would have been pretty built (as a carpenter), and the studies suggest most people in the area at the time had wider heads with large noses, and curly black hair.
I think it’s good, in a way, that our images are just so far from the truth, because it means we don’t get sidetracked from our biblical understanding but subtley deceiving images.


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