I’ve been unsettled lately regarding my image of Jesus. I am coming to believe that having no fixed image of Jesus Christ in my head is healthier than one or many art images from history. Why is this important? Because the Scripture’s record of Jesus’ lineage (and thus his person) in Matthew 1:2-16 and Luke 3:23-28 are completely tied to his place within Israel. Knowing the man Jesus is knowing of his importance to God’s People and God’s overall plan for planet earth. This is far different from knowing Jesus based on a set picture from water color drawings, coloring books, Sunday School material, movies, and other religious media.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but the Hebrew peoples were distinct in that they did not make images of people. As a brief reference, check out this menu of images from History. Included are Africa, Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean. . . . it’s almost like all the surrounding cultures made ready use of images of people and animals, but the people of God were into only images of the earth, plants, fruits, etc. The things that were very important to the Jews were descriptive, imaginative, figurative, but nonetheless transmitted orally and textually.
I’ve spent a good chunk of time recently thinking and reading about spirituality in anonymity. There’s no way I can maintain that Jesus’ personal identity doesn’t matter, that would be heretical. But I think there is something to knowing that my own culture too easily identifies Jesus with images in ways that were foreign in his day. I believe that we use our images of Jesus irresponsibly and that in effect we extricate Jesus’ Person from its heritage of Hebrew identity—because we want to personalize him.
Native Americans and other indigenous peoples around the world have long feared that being photographed stole or did damage to their souls. I can’t really go that far, and don’t fully know what to make of it, but I think there is something in that fear and also the need for image protection. A good friend of mine recently had me take down from the internet a video I’d posted of my own son because her son was with him and she didn’t want his image available for harmful use. Images are powerful and can be used as easily for demonization as for worship.
There is something to be said for the twelfth spiritual principal of Anonymity within the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. Ernst Kurtz points out how this tradition developed in contrast to the objectionable publicity sought by the Oxford Group, a pietistic and political Christian group (pg. 50, Not God: A history of Alcoholics Anonymous). AA (and many other 12 Step groups) does not identify itself publicly with any particular personalities, issues, controversies, or denominations and members find continued sobriety in this practice. In a culture that awards merit to individuals based on the autonomous Self Image, recovering addicts defy that culture by identifying themselves with a group that finds experience, strength and hope in anonymity.
Jesus often withdrew from crowds and warned those he healed not to tell about him. Power and popularity was one of the temptations offered Jesus by the devil in the wilderness.
In John 17:20-21 Jesus spoke of us twenty-first century Christians.
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (NIV)
We are those who believe through his first disciple’s message. We believe not having seen. But he prayed for our unity across time. There is much to be said for believing and not seeing.
But let me say what this does not mean. It does not mean giving up hope of seeing:
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.”(1 John 3:2-3, NIV)
We are purified in the hope of seeing, this is in part why, for me, not Imaging Jesus’ face in an irreverent way is important. I will see his true face and know him “as I am known.” I guess I’m raising more questions here than I can possibly have answers. I’m certainly not into iconoclasm, and I’m not burning my camera and refusing to allow Jesus images around me. Truthfully, I am aware that there is not much I can do about being a 21st century Christian surrounded by images. It takes work to imagine Jesus’ world without these. All I can advocate is knowing the truth: that we really can’t know Jesus face—yet, but we do know his People and his ways!