Problems in Christian Imagery


Devil medium

From “The Devil’s Bible”. Image via Wikipedia

I had an acquaintance who was invited to visit an “underground church” in China. They went into a tall condominium building. My friend was surprised when they began heading upstairs rather than downstairs. It took him a few seconds to remember that the term “underground church” was an expression that meant that it was not registered with the government. Although he knew that, it is so easy to take an expression and make it literal. In US history, there was a loose network of people that made up something called the “underground railroad”. This network of people helped slaves leave the southern states in the US during the 1800s and escape to Canada. The term “underground railroad” was used figuratively. The term “railroad” was used to describe the common purpose between it and real railroads– that of transport of humans from one place to another. The term underground pointed out that it was (just like the underground church) being done without legal sanction. Despite this knowledge, I tend to picture in my mind a dark tunnel that people who would travel through. Figurative language (such as the redemptive analogies mentioned in a previous post) can both enlighten and confuse. These may be harmless examples. But what happens when our language confuses us in more weighty matters. Here are three possible examples:

1. “The Devil.” Even though the Bible refers to Satan as an “angel of light,” our picture of him tends to be… well… devilish. That means horns, tail, pitchfork, sharp features, evil grin. The positive side of this imagery is that evil is shown as undesirable… as unpleasant, unlike God. The negative side is that it can engender the assumption that that which looks pleasant or enticing must be good. We are all prone to a certain dualism. If good looks good and bad looks bad, that would be great. But bad can look awfully good at times. The Biblical description of Satan as a deceiver, one who fools and confuses people, is the truth. Evil doesn’t always appear to be evil. In missions I have come across people pushing strange beliefs and behaviors justified in that it has some positive fruits. However, it is hard to imagine any evil that doesn’t, potentially, have positive fruits. Genocide may increase the food supply and decrease housing prices. Superficial fruit (like superficial appearances) can deceive… covering up its true essence. The recent vampire craze shows evil as enticing. While there are certainly problems with this craze, it at least shows the allure of evil, something that is missing with the imagery of “the devil”.

2. Images of Christ. Traditional images of Christ show Jesus as white. Some even showed him as blonde-haired and blue-eyed. As weird as it may seem, there were even some who used these traditional images (created centuries after the fact) to justify the argument that Jesus must have been fathered by a Roman soldier (explaining his less-than-Semitic appearance). In recent times, there have been a move toward showing Jesus as having, at least somewhat, Jewish features… at least with brown hair and brown eyes. However, even today, angels tend to be shown with Nordic looks. Much of this was that most Christians during the 2nd millenium were European. But with Christianity becoming more international, the imagery needs to change. This is because Christianity should not be looked at as a foreign religion. God so loved THE WORLD… not a specific region of the world. So our imagery should not confuse us. I have seen in African-American Christian bookstores Madonna and child pictures where Mary and Jesus look sub-Saharan African. Is this an acceptable alternative? Perhaps, or perhaps it creates simply a different form of exclusivity. At least images of a Semitic Christ has the advantage of historicity. The religious leaders and Roman soldiers required a kiss from Judas to identify Jesus within his crowd of disciples— so he must have at least blended in with fellow Galileans. Even here, however, any imagery that shows Jesus as foreign to a people group risks confusion. It is perhaps good that the Bible gives no details about Jesus’ appearance than that he was male, had a beard, and had an appearance that made him fit in comfortably in Jewish society.

3. “Saving souls.” In theory, savings souls means saving people. Yet some appear to take the term literally. As such, some use evangelistic techniques that appear to ignore the body and physical situation that an individual lives in. If God cares for the the whole person, so should we. Even after death, we are described as existing in/as a resurrected body. I believe that the term “saving souls” can tempt us to love souls not people. Some Evangelicals even make the argument that caring about the physical and social concerns of people is a distraction from “sould-saving.” What a horrible idea!! Truthfully, if we don’t love people (in ways that are tangible and holistic)… we probably don’t love their souls either.

4.  God.  What does God look like?  As Christians we may say, accurately that God is without form. But that is not to say that we don’t picture God regardless. One person, perhaps, may see God in terms of a doting grandfather with long white beard— waiting to hand out treats to those who ask. Another may picture a more wrathful God with lightning in His hand. Yet another may see God as serene, distant, transcendent, unconcerned. How would these images affect one’s relationship with God. In fact, if a person says that he or she worships God, the question that could reasonably follow is, “Which God?”

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