idols

Memories be damned: On the modern hunt for the perfect image of humanity

Scenes of protestors tearing down statues of figures from history around the world this week have prompted conversations here in Australia about what to do with our monuments to people with stories, that from our perspective here in the future have become problematised. If the conversations aren’t happening already around the names of some of our universities — James Cook, Deakin, and Macquarie — then you can be sure they will be soon. When the moral code of the present is applied to towering figures of the past — especially those memorialised as statues in public places; held up as examples to us all, cultural and architectural reminders of our story — it becomes clear those figures have feet of clay. A new story for our cultural moment means a hunt for new icons from past and present.

History is an important teacher, and while erasing these figures from our national, or international, stories might help us forget some sordid aspects of our racist past here in the west, their removal will not necessarily guarantee a better future. It will also remove, with the clay feet, those good deeds that these figures performed; as Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts it, the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. One photo of a plaque to Winston Churchill, defaced with the word “racist,” that I saw this week on Twitter was framed with the statement “wait till they hear about the other guy.”

In the Roman world statues were a popular form of propaganda; those looking to gain favour with the empire would commission and build statues of the imperial household, and these statues would become icons that dictated fashion, even hairstyles, throughout the Roman world. The Greco-Roman world were no stranger to a good old fashioned statue toppling either; an orator named Favorinus had so pleased the people of Corinth that they erected a statue to him, putting him on a pedestal in the city’s library, as an example of the sort of oratorical skill and thoughtfulness they hoped their city might aspire to. In a speech Favorinus gave to the Corinthians about this honour he said they placed his image “where you felt it would most effectively stimulate the youth to persevere in the same pursuits as myself.” This quote comes in a speech Favorinus gives to the Corinthians having returned to the city to discover his statue — a monument to him as an icon — is no longer standing; he accuses the Corinthians of a personal attack.

There was a common practice in the ancient world of ‘damnatio memoriae,’ a latinism with a meaning not so difficult to decipher in English; the eradication of a person from memory via the destruction of their icon; a collective refusal to view a person as an icon or image from whom a culture seeks inspiration or example. This, of course, was an expensive practice when statues were carved of marble, by artisans, so such damnation could include the defacing of an inscription, or the reuse of marble slabs in promenades; a toppled statue could literally be trodden into the ground. Another Roman practice tied to this sort of cultural iconography, and perhaps to save on costs, was the practice of producing statue bodies with removable heads; people could check in on who was trending (and what fashion to adopt), knowing the statues and their iconography would keep pace with the political and cultural times.

Recent iconoclastic rallies are, rightly, asking questions about whose images should be used to inspire today’s youth (and the not so young). What human from history (or the present) is fit to serve as an inspiration for ‘the good’? Selecting someone to semi-immortalise in a more concrete form than the flesh is difficult in the present, and made almost impossible with the benefit of hindsight and progress. Sporting figures being celebrated for their sporting prowess seem safe, after all, King Wally is still the king of Lang Park; and yet, while ‘image rights’ are an increasingly valuable commodity in the sporting world, if there’s one thing media coverage of the off field exploits of many of today’s athletes tells us, it’s that athletic prowess should not qualify someone as an icon or example. It’s better for companies to celebrate athletes in pixel and print, than in stone or bronze.

Part of the question about making a statue (or tearing one down) is a question of who should represent us; who should present an image to us of the ideal person, who should we aspire to be? But another function of images is that they serve as objects in a cultural architecture, or what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘a social imaginary,’ they help frame our beliefs, values, and understanding of virtue. It seems right to be careful about whose visage or name we memorialise, and right to be prepared to damn some icons or even tred them into the ground; but another question we might ask ourselves is what this realisation that even our heroes in history had feet of clay, is perhaps we should be asking ourselves about the danger of iconography to begin with. The anger we feel when an icon; or an ideal; disappoints; that anger might be because these icons have become idols. In the ancient world the line between icon and idol was a fairly blurry one; the same images on street corners of the imperial family could also be found in imperial temples dedicated to the worship of the Caesars, alongside the Roman pantheon. Perhaps these objects are actually occupying a ‘sacred’ space in a modern civic religion; one where we’ve pushed out the old gods, or God, and turned to people to fill a place previously occupied by something transcendent. Perhaps what we’re seeing in the toppling of these statues is an act of desecration; a deliberate renunciation of previous forms of worship, or religion, or visions of the good life, so that we might replace the religious symbols of the past, and their representation with a previous story, with images that we, in the present, wish to create.

And maybe here there is some wisdom in those ancient words that are, sometimes themselves, erected as stone monuments near civic institutions; the ‘Ten Commandments’ — God’s commands, through Moses, to the people of Israel. Commandment number two is a prohibition against making and worshipping ‘graven images,’ this is part of what was meant to be an Israelite commitment to monotheism; a rejection of the icons and gods of the surrounding nations, based on a wholehearted commitment to worshipping the God who could not be reduced to an image. The God of the Bible is a living, breathing, creating God who gives life to his own living, breathing, images (or icons in the Greek text of the Old Testament). Part of the prohibition of icons and idols is that people — typically ancient rulers — will never properly represent the goodness of God or a truly good pattern of humanity; to worship them, or an image of any other thing, is to commit yourself, to aspire, to becoming like them. You become what you worship. The choice about what to immortalise in bronze or stone is an important one — and in the moral vision of the Bible, we’re better off not making that choice at all; remembering that humans are humans who will disappoint, who will be capable of good and right choices, but who will — in the Bible’s vision — always be ‘dust’ infused with divine breath; with feet of clay, and hearts capable of leading us to both goodness and evil.

In the story of the Bible there is one true image of the good human life; one true icon who should be imitated. Jesus, who the apostle Paul describes as “the image of the Invisible God,” the one good man. As statues and icons are toppled in modern damnatio memoriae, the image of Jesus remains the image of a human who did no wrong, who stood for the oppressed rather than the oppressor, who because all people are made in the image of God, offered his life to secure life for us, who loved and forgave his enemies and taught us to do likewise, even as the powerful rulers of his day, those busy building statues of themselves, created a system that was used to put him to death; crucifixion was a certain sort of damnatiomemoriae in the Roman world, and yet it is Jesus, not Caesar, whose memory stands the test of time, and who stands as one hero from history whose example is worth turning to even now.

On plundered gold.

My project is finished.

Here it is (PDF).

It was an MA project and so was externally marked. I’ve been waiting nervously by my inbox for several weeks.

Feel free to read it. Or not. It represents a significant amount of time and thought for me, and a huge amount of sacrifice for Robyn, and others who love me and let me spend hours reading, writing, and editing. I do think it’s of value for more than just me, and it has certainly become somewhat paradigmatic for how I read the Bible, how I’ll teach it, and how I understand our task as communicators.

Writing this project almost did me in. I still have profound writer’s block. I’m still mentally exhausted. The thought of sitting at the keyboard and writing anything else still hurts a little. It’s fair to say I was a little too invested in this task.

I should also mention here, given this is my soapbox, that I’m exceptionally proud of Robyn (my wife, for context), who finished her own Masters project, and thus her M Div in the last few weeks. She is amazing. And she did it while heavily pregnant and chasing our 18 month old daughter around. I do have lots to be thankful for.

I’ll be posting some reflections on what this project contains in coming days. Once I recover from the ego-crushing soul-destroying heartbreak of reading the marker’s comments, and having the idol that was mine own writing crushed into powder and scattered in a garden somewhere. It hurt so much that tonight I vaguebooked.

On a related note – see this from XKCD.

Keller was right. You know how big an idol something has become by how much it hurts when it gets cast down. I just want to mope in a dark room.

But I’ll get over it.

Here is the abstract:


In this paper I develop a theological framework for excellent and effective persuasive communication consistent with the message of the gospel of the crucified Lord Jesus in a particular socio-historical context.

To this end, I outline the development of communication mediums and methods relevant to the production of Biblical texts. This culminates with the rise of rhetoric with a particular emphasis on Aristotle’s three proofs: pathos, ethos, and logos, especially as developed for the Roman context by Cicero. I outline a model of sublime rhetoric as described by Longinus in On the Sublime, suggesting that truly excellent and ethical communicative acts involve a “sublime” consistency between Aristotle’s proofs.  Next I provide an overview of relevant modern communication theory, including speech-act and public relations theory, engaging with influential Public Relations theorist James Grunig to assess current models for excellent and ethical communication with external publics.

At this point I turn to establish a theological framework for understanding the relationship between the communicative acts of the communicative God, and a proposed communicative praxis based on the incarnation as the paradigmatic act of contextual communication.

This framework emphasises the functional aspect of the imago dei, the link between the imago dei and the imitatio Christi in Pauline thought and praxis, and an understanding of creation as “gold” to be adapted and adorned for communication about the creator.  I then assess this framework against communicative acts contained in the Bible – the Wisdom Literature, especially Proverbs, and Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence, against contemporary communicative acts – the Wisdom of Amenemope, and Cicero’s De Oratore. Finally, I turn to Luther’s Reformation campaign as a model of an early modern Christian communicative praxis consistent with this framework. I conclude that Grunig’s four models of public relations are inadequate for Christian communication, and propose a fifth model – an incarnational, self-renouncing cruciform communicative praxis – as the basis for sublime communication about the crucified Lord Jesus.

 

Image is everything

Here’s some stuff I’m thinking about for my project (in the absence of any ability to think about or process anything that falls outside of this sphere at present project tidbits are going to have to do for content in these parts)…

The basic premise at the heart of my project is that from the opening pages of the Bible, God’s people have been “plundering the Gold of the Egyptians” to explain God to God’s world.

That’s a famous quote from Augustine, he uses it to talk about learning to preach from orators.

The Ancient Near Eastern background to the Genesis account is pretty well known – the Biblical account seems to be setting the record straight about a few things when it comes to the nature of God, the nature of man, and the nature of nature. Whether this was just meant to stop Israel running off to foreign gods, or was a global account is an interesting question… but there’s some stuff that comes to life (even more) when you read the Bible against its cultural backdrop.

Here are the verses I’m particularly interested in, from Genesis 1.

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

There’s all sorts of theological implications from man being made in the image of God, the fancy Latin is imago dei. People have had all sorts of ideas about what the relationship between man and God is. From walking on two legs to being moral beings. People have all sorts of ideas about what happened to this image a couple of chapters later – when Adam and Eve turn their backs on God. Is the image broken? Fragmented? Wiped out? Unchanged?

I’m suggesting that at least part of the image of God relates to communication. Our ability to communicate – perhaps, but mostly our function. God created man to represent him – and by the time people are first reading Genesis, a long time after the fact, when Moses or a final editor handed over the finished first edition of the Pentateuch, representing God meant representing God to other people. Even if it didn’t for people 1 and 2 (“male and female he created them”).

Incidentally – I think there’s a big clue this image function was broken at the fall – though not wiped out – and I think there’s more to it than communication, I think Romans 7 suggests that part of being made in God’s image is having some idea what God wants, and our broken, sinful, nature means we don’t do what we want to do. Romans is part of the reason I think there’s some residual image – but the reason I think it’s broken is where Genesis goes in chapter 5.

“When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “Mankind” when they were created.

When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”

Adam’s image. That is. Not God’s. This image thing is partly related to family lines. The image is carried (we’ll get there with Romans 8 too).

Anyway. Here’s the cool bit (one of them).

One of the fun things people have noticed about the relationship between Genesis and other creation accounts from the Ancient Near East is that the creation of the world is almost always told in relationship to the creation of a temple. These temples have gardens, sanctuaries, flowing water, fruit… and priests – all sorts of language that Genesis 2 picks up. The Temple reflects the cosmos.

These temples had images in them. Images of the gods of the other nations. Images that were seen as living, breathing, manifestations of these gods who needed feeding. Images made from dirt. Images brought to life with a ritual involving “mouth washing” and “mouth opening”… The word used for “image” in Genesis 1 is the Hebrew version of the word for idol – that’s what it is used for in the rest of the Old Testament.

Kings were also “images of god” – as, occasionally, were priests. And sometimes there were idols made of kings who stood in front of their gods. There’s a strong sense in Genesis 1, and 2, that part of being the image of God is ruling as God’s representative – so the command that follows the statement:

so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground

It’s interesting that for the earlier part of Genesis 1, God has named all the things he has made – but he doesn’t name the animals. Adam does, in chapter 2. There are heaps of scholars who think chapters 1 and 2, because they’re different, come from different traditions in Israel and have been lumped together. Those scholars are running after a naked emperor, telling him how nice his clothes are.

Even the dominion thing has communication implications, with chapter 2 taken into account – because as God exercised authority by speaking things into creation, and naming them – man names the animals.

But lets get back to the idol bit… These dirt idols started manifesting the gods they represented in ANE theology when mean played around with their mouths. The Genesis creation account flips it. Man doesn’t make God and get him going by washing his mouth – God makes man, and gets man going by breathing into him (his nose – but presumably God uses his mouth).

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.

Yeah. Cop that idol worshippers! We’ll come back to the “breath of life” bit soon…

So man is like a walking, talking, image of God. Placed in the garden-temple. With king-priest functions. You could, I think, make the case from this alone that part of being the image of God – representing God – is communicating about God.

Images are incredibly powerful forms of communication now – and were in the Ancient Near East. Images, in a largely illiterate time, were the vehicle for propaganda – especially cult images. Where a nation’s legitimacy largely depended on the legitimacy of their gods.

Ezekiel basically picks up this image theme and runs with it in the exile – there’s heaps of idol creation language going on, and this bit in chapter 37 is pretty cool with huge echoes of Eden, and huge promises for what’s to come.

He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to lifeI will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”…

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever.26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

The same mouth washing/opening deal happened whenever an idol was captured by an enemy and restored – and there’s a pretty good case to be made that Ezekiel is promising that for Israel when they return they will be image again – filled with God’s breath/Spirit (Ezekiel makes that more specific), in God’s temple/sanctuary. Alive again. Check out Ezekiel 28 for some more cool Eden language that makes these connections even more explicitly (but more specifically). Oh yeah. I forgot. Check out Ezekiel 36.

24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws

32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel!

33 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt.34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’

Cool. Hey. It gets a bit cooler.

The whole “image as propaganda” thing kept going beyond the Ancient Near East (there’s also a good case to be made that Isaiah was familiar with some of the Assyrian royal propaganda – the picture he paints of foreign kings is often verbatim what the Assyrians claim about themselves. Rome took the Assyrian copybook and ran plays from it, and developed their own, becoming masters of sophisticated imperial imagery.

Especially the use of coins. Coins were a huge aspect of Roman propaganda. Carrying images of the emperor. Which is interesting in itself – but adds some extra coolness to this passage where Jesus is asked about taxes…

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

At the very least this suggests there’s some New Testament cognisance happening when it comes to what images mean and how coins are functioning… but what if Jesus is making a huge claim about “what is God’s” – Caesar’s image might be on coins. But God’s image is on people.

Especially people who follow Jesus. And receive the Spirit. People who follow Jesus, who Paul says:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross…

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your mindsbecause of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation…

24 Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

28 He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.

Paul’s approach to following Jesus, the image of God, is to suffer for the sake of the church, and to participate in God’s mission of communication, so that Christ will be in people, that they may be “mature” in him. He takes up his cross.

Remember how Adam’s image thing was partly to do with sonship. Here’s some stuff from the start of Colossians 1. Compare verse 9 with verse 28

9 …We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.

These people with the Spirit, who have been united with Jesus, have become people who, as Christ’s body, inherit the kingdom from God. Proclaiming Jesus is, it seems, the key to helping people receive the Spirit, and start bearing this image.

Here’s some final bits from Romans 8 (easily my favourite chapter in the Bible)…

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

There are some nice Ezekiel allusions there…

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

And this, friends, is why I’ve appreciated almost four years of enjoying the Bible, and why I’m excited about my project.

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