Monday, June 29, 2009

Conversion Fragment 3: At Peace With Images

As I gained familiarity with the Bible, I learned that rarely is the scriptural evidence for a particular theological position entirely clear-cut. For any position there will be a handful of texts that seem to support it and a handful of texts that seem to contradict it. This Sola Scriptura stuff was a lot of work! Simply disregarding the texts that challenged my position wasn't acceptable---any given position must some how be brought into harmony with the entire body of text.

For example, consider the accusation that Catholics are idolaters for their use of iconography and statuary. Everybody knows that Exodus 20:4-5 says this:
"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;
Verses 22-23 in the same chapter reinforce the point:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Tell the Israelites this: `You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.'
But only a few chapters later, we see this text in Exodus 25:17-22:
"Make an atonement cover of pure gold--two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Clearly, there is some nuance to this graven-image stuff. How can God unilaterally condemn all use of images in worship in one passage and then command their construction in another passage? The tension begs the question of "What is idolatry? Really?" Is it simply the exterior act, or could idolatry be a deeper, more-interior phenomenon? Can we be idolatrous without the use of physical objects? Given this tension in the Scriptures, why have so much anxiety about pictures and statues? Can this anxiety backfire into a sort of reverse-idolatry?

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