Pimp my casket...
Death of an icon. A cliché that reveals the fallacy behind the iconography of pop culture, because icons by definition are not living things - the only life they have is in the representation of something behind them.
The fakery of icons is one of the reasons we lift up and celebrate "iconoclasts" - the bold personalities who debunk and unmask the celebrities, the powerful, the vain. Indeed, this rebellion against the inauthentic becomes a sort of iconography of its own - James Dean, Elvis (aka "the King"), and eventually his son-in-law and heir to the throne, the King of Pop himself. The "rebel" becomes a type itself, its own establishment, its own empire.
But if we value truth, purity of heart, or that old-fashioned concept of holiness, is there even room for any sort of icon in our lives? Both serious and frivolous people have thought: no - down with icons.
Part of the challenge is the lack of distinction between icons and idols. Some years ago as a student at Regent College, I heard a speaker from the Greek Orthodox tradition talk about the difficulty other Christians had in understanding the presence of icons in his place of worship. Some particularly opinionated persons had taken it on themselves to divest the local Orthodox church of its "idolatry" and broke in one night. They smashed the icons and left the place a mess. The grief in his retelling of these events was not so much in the loss of the objects (though they were significant works of craftsmanship) but in the affront to the sanctity they represented. To kneel in front of an icon, he said, was most properly understood as leaning to look through a window, to look beyond the confines of present space and back to a holy source.
It is easy to see how this point of view dovetails with the contemplative mysticism that has a thread throughout the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Protestants have had more difficulty processing the idea of physical representation of God or his presence. When Reformers took back the elaborately decorated Grote Kerk at the centre of Haarlem in the Netherlands, they resolutely smashed all the carvings off the walls. When visiting a few years ago, I noted that much of the wall space was given over to lists of church authorities and their offices for the past four hundred years, and the floor space to their bodies. The atmosphere was one of funereal status and duty. In one corner a few mutilated panels of the frieze remain, the haunted beauty left as a cautionary example of Catholic venality.
I reverse course.
Idol worship is anti-God. The distinction between the servants of Yahweh and those around them is clarified in the story of Abraham's decisive break with his idol-making father, Terah. According to the Jewish fable, Abram smashes his father's idols (each idol representing a different god), and then leaves a club in the hands of one remaining idol. When Terah asks who has smashed his idols, Abram points to the remaining idol as the culprit. But Terah says this is not possible, as the idols had no capability of such action, they were his own creation.
Abram's rejoinder is a founding insight of the Hebrews:
"If they are dead and made of your own hands, why do you worship them?"
In 2090 BC that observation was a potent argument against idolatry. In 2009 AD, perhaps less so, as we know that we make idols with our own hands, and the process of bringing them down from glory is all part of the game. We simply choose to have the downfallen replaced by another in the ascendant.
Fittingly, we use the word "star" to connote the focus of some sort of light within these persons. As our idols, the "stars" are a luminal expression of our own desire to be seen, to be seen as beautiful, to be in the spotlight and feel its warmth. In our competitive society, the urge to verify our significance is reflected in how we mimic the celebrity world in our celebrations of significant events. To graduate from high school now (in some minds anyway) requires Hollywood-style limousines for the 18 year olds.
Then, the next week, back to flipping burgers. Sic transit gloria. If only the moment could be stored.
In her book "The Gift of Thanks", Margaret Visser details the iconic significance of gifts, and the cultural rites we have set around them. Particularly important, she notes, is the need to photograph, to document with some sort of permanence the moment at which the gift is opened. Even though the gift was bought at Sears with a Mastercard and wrapped in appropriately celebratory paper from the Hallmark store, somehow it represents more at its moment of revelation. By hiding it in the disposable finery of tissue, it gains a tender solemnity.
It is as if we are saying, "I give this to object to you. In the moment of revealing it you must discover something of my feeling toward you."
In a passing anecdote in his book "City of God", Dominique Lapierre tells the story of one family of potters in central India. For generations the skill of making simple clay pots had been passed from father to son. The fragility of the vessels themselves meant that there were significant numbers of new pots and jars needed in the community every year, and so there was a continuing income for the family, and status as an essential support to daily life. Without pottery, there was no access to water . Then one day a salesperson from out of town arrived with a cart. On the back of his cart were stacks of very cheap, almost unbreakable plastic cups and containers. The villagers flocked to the cart and entered the era of plastic. Purchasing a breakable clay jar was instantly a second choice for the impoverished villagers, and in a few moments, a local family-scaled industry that had existed for generations was made superfluous.
Lapierre came to know the family in the years that followed because they had been reduced to living on the streets of Calcutta as beggars.
On a practical level, no one can blame the people of that anonymous village for moving to the ease and convenience of plastic containers. But the transition made both pottery and craftsmen disposable, and cut off a cycle of interaction, service and interdependence that was healthy.
In our increasingly plastic society, we continue to be tempted - not unlike Terah - to store up significance for ourselves in a thousand ways - in reputation, money, objects and knowledge. Perversely, this quest for lasting significance makes the high-maintenance work of relationships dispensable, even undesirable.
Yet the fragility of those moments we spend together in meaningful connection makes them all the more significant. We cannot indefinitely store, as if in plastic, a sense of trust between friends. We cannot "lock in the freshness" of connection to God, so that is summoned up at will, when convenient. No, such things are found only through the tender fumbling of words between us, or perhaps on our knees in a posture of surrender, or as a gift because we were paying attention. Like clean water cupped for a moment in clay, or a light refracted, is the understanding that we are loved. I ask you - is it in some manufactured moment of triumph or instead in moments of true humility that we sense the character and person of God reflected in a person who knows Him?
I mentioned the temptation to take on celebrity personas during celebrations. Recently my daughter Emily was married. It is gratifying to me as I look back now at how she chose to frame "her day". Were there extravagances? Sure, but focused on the inclusive celebration of all those who were participating, not on items that glorified the bride and groom or removed them to a place above everyone else. In fact, when looking at the wedding location Emily and Garrett were very positive about it in general, but did have reservations that the ceremony would take place on a terrace slightly elevated from the congregation.
"It's like everyone will be looking at us!"
That's how it works, honey.
On their wedding day, like it or not, they did become representatives of marriage, and through that, a cause for reflection on the value of relationships in our lives. For me, one of the most significant moments that day came during the sermon, a gracious moment that connected all the meaning within the wedding day to all the purpose of a life lived in love. It was captured on video tape (like the opening of a gift long-awaited) and I transcribe it here.
In his closing remarks, Paul Hughes gave my daughter and her new husband this charge:
"You are both called to receive and release the goodness of God, to live your lives as iconic reminders for all those around you who are watching, who are hungering for more at a spiritual level, who may have lost hope - to remind them that God is good, all the time."
Idols are the signature of an anti-God mentality. Icons are only as worthy as the god they reflect. If we truly desire to diminish the darkness of our world, to hold others as valuable rather than disposable, to fashion our lives in a positive way to a state of permanence, we will have to know that the light we need comes from Christ himself. Knowing this, we will not hoard it, or plasticize it, or (especially) think of it as our own, but "receive and release" it, aware of the numinous power of an iconic life.
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:6-7
by Tim Anderson
Michael Jackson "Pimp my Casket" photo - shyftr.com
Indian Clay pot - licensed from www.istockphoto.com
E & G Wedding photo by Ken Semenuk - www.lightnthedarkness.com
Thanks for the suggestions of my first readers: Janet Anderson, Luci Shaw, Ron Reed, Karen Cooper and Mike Mason.
(c) Tim Anderson 2009