Note: This is NOT a post on the Catholic and Orthodox use of images.
“Image is everything.”
In the modern world we are constantly bombarded with images: websites, television, films, billboards, buses, magazines, etc. Privileging sight over other senses and faculties is natural in our Western world-system: we do it without thinking about it. Of course, our politically-correct education system tries hard to instil the principle that we should not be superficial, that we should not judge by appearances, but this fails to destroy the lust of the eyes that every shrewd advertising operative seeks to exploit.
Within certain cultures and sub-cultures, certain kinds of image become very important. The preponderance of naked and nude (there is a distinction between these as art-historical terms) human forms in classical and Hellenistic art has been seminal in the formation of modern hyper-sexual culture. The mere presence of something can have a subliminal effect on the human mind, and it helps us understand why the Lord exhorted us to pray that we not be led into temptation (Matt. 6:13; Mark 14:38). When presented with such images, so many thoughts can come to us, but often comparison is the form of them – the difference between the world and the ideal. “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” We can argue about whether this is literal or not, but the basic principle is clear: there are times when it is better to be blind than it is to see.
Images are both full and empty: they are created with intent and yet are patient of individual, subjective reading. An idol in itself is nothing but a powerless piece of metal, stone, wood, etc., but when used by the dark spiritual hosts of Satan’s kingdom, it takes on special significance. Man is inherently spiritual. He will always latch onto something for worship: he seeks something greater than himself.
We are beings of the material world, and yet without God’s breath, His Spirit, in us, we would be nothing but dust. From dust we were made, and to dust our bodies return. As such, we have a special relationship with the earth, which is why she was referred to as Mother among ancient cultures (e.g. Cybele in Anatolia). What we can see and touch has meaning for us, whether we admit it or not. We often think in visual terms, even if we believe we are not very good at imagining things.
But try pairing the image with a concept and find out how difficult it is to grasp that nexus – hence the Socratic dialogues. “What is beauty?” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Try as we might to confine beauty to the theoretical level, as that principle by which we conceptualise “the good”, “the well-ordered”, “the efficiently functional”, we cannot get away from the image of woman. Like father, like son. What did Adam say when he saw Eve? He probably couldn’t get beyond “Wow.”
Now put yourself in the shoes of the Shulamite looking at her Beloved: “ My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand. His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.” The material world is a shadow of the spiritual world (at least in some respects), the author of Hebrews says. As the Shulamite marvels at her Beloved’s physical beauty, so we marvel at God’s beauty in Christ, the Church’s Beloved. For He is the image of the invisible God, as Paul writes to the Colossians.
Beauty creates attraction: what is “beautiful” draws attention. Unfortunately, we are fallen beings, and that fallen-ness means disorder, distortion. The complex nexus of beauty, intimacy, companionship, adoration, and physical (sexual) pleasure -further intensified in our hyper-sexual, post-Freudian culture – makes navigating the rocky shoals of life a nightmare. And this of course leads to objectification and shame. Therefore, Paul and the author of Hebrews exhort us to keep our attention fixed, not on what causes us to stumble, but on Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. My suspicion is that a great deal of trouble in life comes simply from not being focussed on Jesus, not meditating on His beauty.