(Make sure to read Fred Warren’s introduction to this new series, about icons in the Bible, history, and speculative stories. This series is based on our ongoing email conversation.)
Good morning, Fred,
This series does seem more ambitious. We might be cheating by basing it on our emails back and forth. Or this might be exactly what we need: the wisdom of Speculative Faith readers, and other contributors, who come from different perspectives and different denominations, and can offer us more — especially about how icons have been used in Church history, and how some have distorted their use, either for them or against them.
First, I like your working definition of icon, which I’ll adapt, here:
An icon can be a picture, symbol, archetype, stereotype, a graphic container or shorthand for something else. In the Christian tradition, an icon can be a specific kind of devotional image.
That leads me to consider …
Examples of icons
- Picture and/or graphic container for something else. The icons on my computer.
- Symbol. The sign of the bat from Batman. In particular, I recall the film Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne is returning to Gotham City, determined to start cleaning up the place. “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne,” he says. “As a man, I’m flesh and blood — I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol — as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting. … Something elemental, something terrifying.”
- Archetype. These are especially common in stories. They’re the opposite of stereotype, and carry the connotation of a positive, an ideal. I’m thinking of the Sacrificial Hero — an archetype clearly founded by Christ — and others such as the Wise Mentor, or the Damsel in Distress.
- Stereotype. This is where it gets fuzzy, because the above-mentioned Damsel in Distress could also be an archetype. A stereotype may be a negative archetype, like the “shooting up heroine.”
- Specific devotional image. Most people think of “icons” as a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox thing, but really I think Protestants have just as many icons, if not more. I’m thinking about the Cross on a wall or necklace. Or an outline of clasped hands. Or maybe even the old(?) “WWJD?” bracelets.
Like you said before, because we’re not talking about computer graphical-user interfaces, superhero crime-fighting psychology, or even devotional images, we’ll likely want to focus tighter here on the “icons” that relate to fiction and literature.
Icons in fiction
Still, I think the others are more related than we think, or else, should be — such as the symbols, or devotional images. “Embedding” an icon in a work of fiction could strengthen its classic value, or even (to borrow from another Christopher Nolan film) commit “inception” in the subconscious mind of a reader.
You don’t think you noticed the symbol or icon there, but your brain did.
Sometimes those archetypes are so deep that it takes years to find them. One notable example is Prof. Michael Ward’s theory, which I believe to be valid, that C.S. Lewis, given his literary and mythological background, embedded references to the seven medieval planets in The Chronicles of Narnia, such as theming The Last Battle around Saturn.
I could get into all kinds of distractions given the relation of mythology and archetypes to Christianity and Christian fiction. So let me instead briefly discuss the issue you raised, about icons in Church history.
Icons in history
You mentioned the icon controversy that was addressed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea, in 787 A.D. In this corner were the Iconodules, who defended the use of icons, and in that corner were the Iconoclasts (a more-familiar word that has passed into modern use), who suspected the icons of causing sin.
The Council surveyed the underlying theology issues — about whether the material universe was good or bad, and how Christ’s incarnation with a human body and face and therefore an “image” Himself affected the controversy. Ultimately the Council ruled in favor of the Iconodules, I’ve read, and said that churches could keep the icons, right alongside symbols of the Cross, and the Bible itself. Here’s a quote I found:
“I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.”
— St. John of Damascus
One could replace the word “matter” up there with anything else: the church, God’s Word, even stories. We shouldn’t worship those, but they’re also not evil. In fact, I was recently amused to see a Catholic activist, posting on a Protestant ministry’s page, who accused Christians of worshiping Scripture. For “proof,” he presented a theologian’s quote that praised the Bible’s value to society and Christians. My reply: “This is just plain ol’ silly. Or maybe it’s playground revenge for evangelicals who say Catholics ‘worship saints’ or ‘worship Mary.’ Now, take what you guys say in response to that (‘we don’t worship! we just like them a whole lot!’). That’s the answer about the Bible.”
But this does reveal something important: that any icon can be used for good or evil.
If we throw out the un-Biblical Gnostic/Pelagian notions — that it is our corrupted world, and not our evil hearts, that lead us to sin — then we are also forced to throw out objections to all icons — even icons in worship.
Icon critics err in assuming that any visual representation will result in idolatry. They are also inconsistent.
A modern example may be a Christian who opposes everything about the Catholic Church, but prizes a certain older Bible translation as the only one that any Christian worth anything should value and adore. That iconicization is at least as bad as people in another denomination who start confusing an image of Jesus with the real Jesus.
Thus, if I start worshiping on icon, I may need to get rid of the icon’s presence in my life. But it’s not the icon’s fault. It’s mine. I have confused the means for the ends. And this would be true for any good gift of God that we abuse.
Speaking of the real Jesus, I believe this discussion will keep returning to that, especially given this time of year. It occurs to me that He, and only He, matches all the aspects of your helpful definition of icon, and I’m sure I can find Scripture that proves every one of those. Christ is the ideal, the exact “image of the invisible God” the Father (Colossians 1:15), the “exact imprint of His nature” (Hebrews 1:3). And yet He is also a Man, a real, flesh-and-blood Man. He’s the only perfect unity of each. So if we think of an “icon” as spiritual and more-abstract, and a “character” as physical and tangible, He is both.