Iconoclasm, Icons and the Image of God: a book review

We are bombarded by images daily. They come to us through television, social media, and other online platforms (i.e. BuzzFeed slide shows about has-been celebrities—you’ll never believe what they look like now!). The current format of our image drivenness may be new, but images are not. Images shape our self understanding and our perceptions of the world. Each person is also an image. Enshrined in Christian theology is the idea of that humankind itself is made in the image of God.

9780830851201The Wheaton Theology Conference brings together, each year, an impressive array of scholars to probe a theological theme from different angles and academic disciplines.  The 2015 conference was entitled The Image of God in an Image Driven Age and explored the topic of theological anthropology through the lenses of Canon, Culture, Vision, and Witness. IVP Academic published essays delivered from the conference (March 2016), under the same title: The Image of God in an Image Driven Age with an introduction and epilogue from editors Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey Barbeau.

What I have appreciated about past publications from the conference is the breadth of scholarship represented. This is no exception. Featured in this volume are poets, theologians, an art historians, professors of English and literature, a historian, pastors and biblical scholars. It is also worth noting that while academic theology tends too often to be a white male discipline, seven of the sixteen contributors are female and three of the contributors to this volume are scholars of color, though the conference also had a presentation from theologian Willie James  Jennings not replicated here (I’m not sure why his talk was omitted).

After  an introduction from Felker Jones and Barbeau, two poems introduce this collection (one from Jill Peláez Baumgaertner, and one from Brett Foster). The essays are divided into four sections, each considering the implications of the image of God from different angles. In part one, Catherine McDowell, William Dyrness and Craig Blomberg consider what the biblical material tells us about what it means that humankind is created in God’s image.  McDowell surveys the way theologians past and present have understood image bearing—spiritually or mentally, corporeality, capacity for relationship or royal representative (30-34). She examines the concepts of image and likeness in the Bible (particularly the Genesis  passages) and the Ancient Near East arguing that the concept of sonship is inherit in the idea of image bearing. Dyrness discusses the nature of image-bearing in a fallen world, where the trajectory of life and the trajectory of death are both at work in humankind. Blomberg extends the canonical lens by examining what light the New Testament sheds   on the Image Dei. He argues that implicit in image bearing is showcasing God’s glory through holy living.

Timothy Gaines and Shawna Songer Gaines, Matthew Milliner and Christina Bieber Lake look the Image of God through the cultural lens. The Gaineses examine how sexual sin can distort our understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image, but conversely a biblical perspective of sexuality as ‘God’s good gift’ reveals God’s good intent for humanity and contributes to the construction of the self (16, 106). Milliner’s essay sings the praise of iconoclasm  throughout the Christian tradition (in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant guises). While humanity images its Creator, not all of human’s images are good or healthy, especially in our consumer, capitalist age. A healthy dose of Christian iconoclasm (in and through the Arts) showcases a way to resist the spirit of the age, “God’s people are called to resist our image-driven age because God loves the images—us—who are caught up within it. He calls us to break free of all our counterfeit images and be restored to his own true image” (135). Lake takes on ride down Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia, The Road, revealing how God’s image persists through darkness and despair. She encourages us to engage contemporary literature, not as God forsaken, but Christ haunted (152).

Part three explores vision, or “the Christian idea of Christ as the icon of God” and the implications for what that means for the church (17). Ian McFarland commends the Eastern Orthodox theology of the icon to Western Christians, encouraging us to see in human persons the possibility of an encounter with the Divine (172). Daniela C. Augustine continues to draw insight from the Christian East, exploring the concept of intercessory prayer as a way to make space and offering unconditional hospitality for the other (180). In this way the church itself becomes an icon of the Holy Trinity (186-188).  Janet Soskice examines the implications of Image bearing for ethics, positing that the Creative God who spoke worlds into being also invites us towards creative address (we image God as we learn to speak.

Part four explores the implications of the Imago Dei for our Christian Witness. Soong Chan Rah describes the way the image of God has been racialized in the West, as Christians of color have been encouraged to conform to a white, evangelical image of God. His essay suggests a more diverse and richer picture of the image of God which showcases our mutual image bearing across racial and cultural lines. Felker Jones discusses how our theology of the Image of God helps us resist the commodification of human persons. Historian Phillip Jenkins describes a ‘storm of images’ showing us how our understanding of being made in God’s image is enriched by historical and global understandings.

The essays in this volume are brief but suggestive, each could be unpacked in greater detail in monograph length treatments. However there is enough here to provoke serious reflection on what it means for us to be created in God’s image. I am glad that the organizers of this conference (and publication) made a serious effort to incorporate the arts into their presentation of the Imago Dei. This volume is all the richer for it. Milliners essay, in particular, discusses how Christians in the arts both image the world  and destroy false images.

I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone who interested in tracing out the implications of theological anthropology. Our humanity is stamped with the image of God which affects our self understanding, our hospitality of others, our ethics, our sexuality, our appreciation of the arts and our Christian witness.

Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.