Jan 15

In the Image

I met God, She's Black

Sure, its a deliberately controversial and provocative statement. I have been known to make one or two of those in my time. Its useful, at times. Especially if you have the wisdom to stop pushing, or at least learn to duck. In this case, the challenge is to an underlying assumption about God. What does God look like? Intellectually we might describe God as a nebulous an ineffable being, but instinctively we bring a cultural legacy with us. While we may not think about it much, how we envision God, even in the far recesses of our mind, has a profound effect on all matters of faith. In reality, we tend to make the divine look like us so that we, in turn, are justified since we are like the divine. However, I think that might be just fine as a spiritual exercise if we are aware we are doing it. It the unconscious religious decisions that cause problems.

Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book on Pop Christianity that talks about where are cultural legacy, at least in America, comes from.

The Old Man on the Mountain
Let us begin with the images of God we see in Popular Culture. Prior to the 10th century, there were basically no real images of God the Father in Western art. If God the Father was depicted at all it was only as a hand or other part, to show interaction with creation. The sentiment of the period is perhaps best expressed by John of Damascus (c. 675 to 749 CE) in Three Treatises on the Divine Images: "If we attempt to make an image of the invisible God, this would be sinful indeed. It is impossible to portray one who is without body: invisible, uncircumscribed and without form." This reluctance began to change, however, in the Middle Ages.

By the 12th century God the Father was showing up in illuminated manuscripts and stained glass windows, typically His head or as a bust. Over the next two centuries the image would become the full figure. That figure became almost universal in Europe as the Ancient of Days. An elderly Father figure, with flowing white beard and hair, a robe, and more often than not surrounded by clouds. While the depiction of God the Father at all would continue to be controversial in some circles, this image, when any image was used, stuck.

The Third Commandment, of the Ten (in case you were wondering), is pretty clear “You shall make no images [for the purpose of worship.]” (My own translation.) Although this is widely taken as a prohibition against worshiping idols but that is pretty much covered in the First Commandment. This is, I believe, more about protecting the image and understanding of the God of Abraham in the mind of the Israelites. Specifically, it guards against syncretism, the practices of merging or incorporating elements of different belief systems. So why is that a big deal? Consider the gold calf idols placed by Jeroboam in Bethel and Dan. They were, most likely, intended to represent the God who brought them out of Egypt; but once God has a form it is really easy to confuse Him with other things that have forms. Various Baals of Canaan and Phoenicia as well as a few Egyptian gods were also depicted as calves or bulls. In choosing that form for God he invited people to say “The image of the God of Abraham is very much like the image of Baal of Tyre (or whomever); they must be alike in nature as well.” Thus leading to theological errors and various problems down the road.

If Ghostbusters taught us anything it is that choosing the image of a god is always a bad idea.

Now back to modern Christianity. Depictions of God the Father are dominated by the image of the Old Man. Zeus and Odin (to name but a few gods) and then there is the classic image of the wizard in Merlin/Gandalf/Dumbledore/Shazam who are all basically the same person. Not to mention Santa Claus. So God then becomes distant, like those deities on their mountains, and a wish granter, like the wizard figures. God the Father’s personality is typified by either what Gandalf said of wizards “subtle and quick to anger” or of Santa who is “making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.” With that Judgment Day is a glorified apocalyptic version of Christmas Morning, checking for presents or coal, switches, and (as my Maw Maw used to say) burnt cornbread in our stockings. These images of God make him either an ineffectual Father figure, clucking his tongue over our mistakes but keeping track of every single one, or the angry myth, ready to release the Kraken on us for imagined slights.

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