More graven images

A commenter asked, “wonder what Paul would say if he could see St. Paul’s Cathedral?” Excellent question, and alluding to a basic issue that Christians have been grappling with through the ages. Probably not excluding the cathedral’s namesake.

I’ve been in St. Paul’s in London, and, wow. It’s something. I’ve also been in many of the grand cathedrals in France, and some elsewhere in Europe. Wow again. I’m of two minds when entering such places. The first is usually, “surely they could have found a better use for the money this all cost?” Like, maybe, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, shelter the homeless. That sort of thing.

The second is to be in awe at some of the craftsmanship, sculptures, and paintings. Beautiful. What price to put on it? Ad majorem dei gloriam, as my Jesuit brothers say. As to what Paul might have said, don’t know. He was a bit of a curmudgeon, in a righteous cause, for which he gave his life. I suspect he’d not have liked it much.

The “graven images” controversy has been going on probably since Luke handed his draft of Acts over to the editor. For centuries, at least since the Reformation, many Protestants have rejected the “graven images” that seem to overwhelm the senses in many Catholic cathedrals and churches. [The Church of England is Protestant only by the narrowest of definitions. They are a catholic, sacramental church, one step removed from Rome. Which I only bring up just in case the CoE is confused with some of us harder-core Protestants.]

Baptists, especially, have made it a point of not having anything that could be remotely construed as an “image” of God, or of Christ. That is not a uniform practice, these days, but it is not an accident that Protestants tend to have empty crosses, and Catholics crosses filled with the crucifed Christ. The usual theological argument is that we Protos celebrate the empty cross symbolizing the risen Christ; Catholics the filled cross symbolizing the suffering servent. That’s a convenient but only partial explanation.

All Christians, to be faithful Christians, must acknowledge that it isn’t a question of one as against the other. Both are necessary; it’s just a matter of emphasis. And here’s where I suggest that a Protestant distaste for “graven images” comes into play. “Less is more” might have been the motto of some Protestants, especially among Baptists, Methodists, and Church of God. Quakers take it to the extreme, and don’t have even a cross in their meetinghouses (at least those of “unprogrammed” Friends in the United States).

As for stained glass, statues, votary stands, gilt, reliquaries, and all of the other works by the hand of man that one may find in churches and cathedrals? They may, or may not, meet your personal standard for beauty. They may, or may not, pass the “ho-ho” test on nurturing the Christian faith. But they are plainly not forbidden by Scripture.

What is forbidden is to pray to a crucifix, statue, painting, reliquary, or any thing made by the hand of man.

| technorati tag | |


  1. The Un-Apologetic Atheist · · Reply

    Well-written entry!

    “What is forbidden is to pray to a crucifix, statue, painting, reliquary, or any thing made by the hand of man.”

    That has to SUCK for American Buddhists, Shintoists, Wiccans, Pagans, Hindus, and any remaining Greek-god worshippers, though! Let’s put the Ten Commandments in the courtroom that judges them, so they feel more American. *wink*

  2. John Schroeder · · Reply

    Great post.

    I’ve linked here

  3. breakerslion · · Reply

    A well thought-out post. I must admit a certain affinity to the iconoclasts; less is more, and none is the greatest 😉

    You have probably noticed that I come across as intolerant to spiritual beliefs on many occasions. I am simply passionate in the support of my own beliefs, and intolerant of confused or equivocal defenses of any sort. If a man or woman tries to live life as an upright, honest, human being, I can certainly accept that their path is different from my own, provided that they can extend to me the same courtesy.

    I do not think that any cathedral would be to Paul’s liking, not that I think that should matter to anyone but Paul. I also do not think he, or any early Christian anticipated the incorporation of Pagan, Mayan, Malaysian, or other rituals and holidays into the practice of Christianity. The pattern was set however, when they patterned themselves after some of the Jewish holidays. Besides, it helped them to absorb cultures instead of alienating them.

    I also don’t think that the early Christians anticipated the Pantheon of Saints to which some pray for intervention. Given Paul’s take on idolatry, I am left to wonder what he would have made of that practice.

  4. I think, perhaps, that the issue of graven images is as much an issue of not worshipping things other than God as it is not distracting us from worshipping God. Sounds the same, but they are different.

    Worshipping something other than God is placing more emphasis on the praise of that thing than God; in other words, we are purposefully directing our attention to the item, not necessarily because it has distracted us but because we choose to treat it as God.

    An item of beauty distracting us, on the other hand, isn’t something that we necessarily worship but that stops us from worshipping God.

    The distractions will be different for every person, and if it can be a distraction, perhaps it should be avoided at all costs? I’m not sure on how I would weigh the costs of having things that could be distraction versus the cost of people who really do connect in a better way to God through the things not being able to do so as well.

    The questions are perplexing.

  5. the bloke · · Reply

    I wonder if the commandment against “no graven images” goes beyond merely parying to these icons/images. I wrote a piece sometime ago reflecting what “no graven images” mean today. You can see it here:

  6. Kim Anderson · · Reply

    Thought provoking analysis! It is a thorny question, but in our efforts to be thoroughly Biblical, we sometimes neglect to see things as the people who made them intended them to be seen.

    Many of the beatiful things seen in cathedrals were the free offerings of humble craftsmen, who were laboring to make the stone, wood, glass, etc. speak more clearly of the God they adored. Shall we dismiss those as wicked or misguided because they do not measure up to modern standards that have been influenced by the utilitarianism of the Enlightenment?

    Sometimes the artworks were bought and paid for by the church. Artists tend to be poor. Is it worse to give dignity to the poor by allowing them to work for the money the church has to use for Christ’s people than it is to train the poor to expect a hand-out?

    I like your distinction between condemning cathedral art out of hand, and discerning its use (or abuse) in worship as the determining factor in indentifying a “graven image”. It leaves room for us to consider things in their historical and Biblical settings.

  7. Joseph McMahon · · Reply

    The ideological rejection of art and beauty which is typical of most Protestant Churches seems to me to miss out on facets of the human personality. We are emotional, artistic and intellectual beings and whatever can inspire us and elevate our thoughts and emotions is good. We are going to form pictures in our minds of God, of Heaven and Hell, and why not allow ourselves to be lifted up by those with superior insight and imagination. Incidentally, while it may appear a fine distinction to some, Catholics do not pray to statues or pictures, but to the figures they represent.I am, of course, a Catholic. I am puzzled by the (ideological) assumption that art or music are a distraction from God.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: