Rearranging Icons: An Introduction

A few months ago, Stephen and I wandered into a conversation about the meaning of icons in literature and their connection to Christian faith, and we agreed it was a topic worth examining in more detail in a feature here at Speculative Faith.
on Apr 10, 2012 · No comments
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Icon of the Resurrection

A few months ago, Stephen and I wandered into a conversation about the meaning of icons in literature and their connection to Christian faith, and we agreed it was a topic worth examining in more detail in a feature here at Speculative Faith.

After some head-scratching about how to approach this task and divide the labor, we decided to simply continue our conversation via e-mail and post the discussion here in several parts with some notes to provide context. This way, we hope, it will feel more like a chat between friends rather than a series of lectures or essays.

So today, we come in shortly after the conversation started, when we were hashing out the details and talking about definitions. We’re both busy guys, so you’ll see there are some gaps in these exchanges, but the great thing about written correspondence like this is that the conversation “keeps” until one or both of us has the opportunity to give it our full attention.

Please feel free to enter and expand the discussion in comments to these posts.

To keep things straight, we’ll show my comments in blue, Stephen’s in green, and notes external to the conversation in black.

February 15, 2012


Sure, I’m still up for the icons series. I guess the big question is how we want to plot this out and divide the labor. Piggybacking on your thoughts, we’ll probably need a brief introduction, definitions and history (which might be two separate posts), examples from spec fic, and maybe a discussion of how icons can help or hinder our understanding and storytelling, depending on how they’re used. Then, a brief conclusion to summarize and wrap up. We could do the posts collaboratively, with a single voice, or tag-team either within or between posts.

Another alternative might be to just continue our conversation here in a less structured way via e-mail and post that after a bit of editing, with some framing comments. Hmm…that could even kick off a recurring feature where pairs of us go back and forth discussing some issue over a few weeks on e-mail, then post the conversation in one or more parts, as necessary. “Becky and Stephen Talk Tolkien,” or somesuch.

Getting back to icons, definitions are going to be critical, and I think it will be important to explain both what an icon is, and what it isn’t. Perhaps the biggest distinction is that icons communicate fundamental, enduring truths and encapsulate them in a compact form we understand intuitively. The Firefox icon, to use a mundane example, carries a lot of information wordlessly and represents a very complex piece of software. A stereotype or caricature, on the other hand, perpetuates misunderstanding and untruth. There are also branches to the concept. A character or object can become “iconic” in the sense that it serves in our mind as an exemplar of what such a person or thing is or should be, and a window into what it really means.



March 15, 2012


Good gravy. It’s been exactly a month since your message. Please forgive my delay. And I hope this message finds you and yours doing well!

A few quick thoughts:

 Might we start this next month, earlier in the month — to include the concept of Easter / Resurrection Sunday, the culmination of the only perfect icon and person, Christ Himself?

 I love the idea of trading emails back and forth. I’ve done that at least once before and the results made for a great read. For that to work, though, and not to frustrate you, I’ll need to make sure to commit, now, to one email per week, sent your direction. End of project? When it ends, I guess.

Starting out with definitions and history sounds like a great idea. In fact, it seems you’ve already begun with the definitions. I’d love to follow up with the history, both summaries of “icons” in Scripture — the construction of the Tabernacle, especially — and in church history. A future column or two could explore how Christians in the Reformation began hating on icons, and the dangers they did pose then and do pose now … but also expand into Biblical balance.

Over and out, and Godspeed, brother,



March 15, 2012

Yes, I think April’s a good month for this, and anchoring it to Christ and the Resurrection makes perfect sense.
One e-mail a week may not be adequate to hash out the issues, but I suppose it depends on how long and detailed we get with these. I know you’ve got other irons in the fire, so I’d say we’ll just proceed as we’re both able, and see where it goes.
As usual in English, we’re confronted with a word that takes on several different meanings, depending on the context. It can be a picture, a symbol, an archetype, a stereotype, a graphical container or shorthand for something, and in the Christian tradition, a specific kind of devotional image. Muddling the definitions has the potential to cause massive confusion, and when I think about how I might write on this topic, I find myself having to stop every so often and ensure I’ve got it straight in my own head. It’s going to be a challenge.
Overarching it all is the need to connect this to literature, which is interesting in that iconic images form a sort of bridge between conceptualizing and visualizing an idea. It’s related to the idea of showing versus telling, using an image to create an idea in the reader’s mind, or perhaps assembling ideas that coalesce into an image with an intuitive meaning. Right-brain versus left-brain stuff. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, religious icons are considered “theology in imagery” that express through lines and color what the Gospel proclaims in words. Interestingly, these icons aren’t “painted,” they’re “written.”
In looking over your articles of the past few weeks, you’ve been emphasizing how some of these literary images we might call icons could hobble our imagination and perhaps lead us to settle for an “ideal” that isn’t truly ideal–something that obscures truth by distorting or oversimplifying it. The John C. Wright article I’m linking on SF tomorrow talks about both archetypes and stereotypes as a necessary foundation for all characters, sort of a stepping stone for readers that allows them to fill in the blanks when we’re “showing” rather than “telling.” Of course, stopping at the stereotype without further development produces a stock, one-dimensional character. By pursuing more well-rounded characters, I suppose we’re still creating icons, though perhaps more truthful ones.
So, perhaps we have false icons that are more like stereotypes, and true icons that are more like archetypes. Jesus is, as you mentioned, the best, truest image or icon of God the Father (and ‘ikon’ is the Greek word used in Hebrews 1:3, I believe). Human beings are created in the image of God, and are also icons in that way, though sin has marred that image in us.
On the history, I think you may want to look at the controversy over icons that sprang up circa 500-600AD, culminating in the 7th Ecumenical Council. Part of the battle over icons was waged by Gnostics who denied the physicality of Christ. Post-Reformation iconoclasm seems more like anti-Catholic backlash, though the Catholics incorporated more three-dimensional sculpture and realistic imagery into their religious art that the Orthodox avoided for fear it might inspire idolatry.
We probably need to get a little more specific on the content of each post so we don’t overlap each other too much and keep the discussion flowing smoothly. If we find ourselves with a difference of opinion on some of these issues, that may affect the format a bit and produce more of a running debate than a tag team, but I don’t see any negative in that.
Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.
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  1. Galadriel says:

    I like this format…should be interesting. I’ve read some things about it  by Madeline L’Engle in Walking on Water.

  2. What did L’Engle have to say about them, I wonder, Galadriel?

    I believe she has a Catholic background, correct? If so, she would indeed be more comfortable with icons — either used correctly, or used otherwise.

    Protestants may get away with icon worship by a neat little trick: by not calling them icons. See, instead we call them Role Models.

    Example: Tim Tebow. Some rare Christian sorts may “iconicize” him. Then other Christians, forgetting that Tebow may actually be awesome and that any rare folks’ iconicization is not his fault, blast the wrong supposed motives. And around and around we go, missing what really leads to idolatry and other sins: not the things or people who are idolized or “iconicized,” but the sinner’s own sinful heart.

    Meanwhile, I greatly anticipate more of this series. I’ll have part 2 this Thursday.

  3. Fred Warren says:

    Madeleine L’Engle was an Episcopalian.

  4. Aha. And that is why I need actually to read her books. Thanks for the fact-check!

What do you think?