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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

graven images...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The trouble with image-based perceptions of God and worship is that you're only one step away from idolatry" - so spoke a friend of mine who is also a pastor of a free Reformed church.

His comment came as part of a conversation we were having on Sunday, in which I was describing how Dream tended to engage people who felt that their artistic and creative gifts had more often then not been sidelined in worship they had experienced at other churches. I tried to explain how songs and words were often seen as 'central' to the act of worship while artistic expressions (painting, sculpting, modelling, fabric work, etc) were seen as peripheral. People who expressed themselves better through art consequently often felt themselves sidelined in worship. Dream (and other so-called 'altworship' groups like it) was attempting to redress the balance and see art as equally central to the act of worship.

And then came the comment... the implication: art can lead to idolatry! My friend's point was that in art we attempt to 'picture' God and so violate the second Commandment. My response was that in words we equally attempt to 'picture' God and so are equally likely to break the second Commandment. Plenty of 'graven images' have been constructed linguistically and presented as THE correct description of God - surely that's just as idolatrous as an icon or a statue (if not more so because of the intent - very few people regard an icon as THE correct description of God)!

The real issue here is how we deal with the images of God that we construct - be they visually, through art, or linguistically, through words. In word or picture we attempt to encapsulate God, and as soon as we have done so what we have encapsulated is, by definition, less than God. God is so much greater than any of our images or descriptions of God, and so whatever we can come up with is, at best, only a partial depiction of God.

And so word and image are equally useful tools and equally 'dangerous' (if you want to follow my friend's line of argument) tools in trying to get a handle on the Divine. Maybe this is why Jesus taught so much about humility and used so many parables to disrupt people's perceptions and teach new things about God and the kingdom (incidentally, what are the parables if they are not attempts by Jesus to 'paint pictures' in people's minds?)

So I, for one, will continue the artistic and creative quest in worship event though I am naturally more disposed to words! After all, didn't Jesus say "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul..." as well as "with all your mind"?

the above image is from poosk

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:44 AM

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