In praise of (imperfect) images

Depictions of Jesus reveal God—but never adequately.

When we interact with religious images—from an icon of Christ to a pixelated picture of Jesus on a computer screen, from the plastic bobble-head Jesus on the youth pastor’s desk to a famous medieval altarpiece—what do we experience? Revelation, longing, closeness to God, danger, mystery, hope, disappointment, peacefulness, fear?

Theologians have long understood that when we talk about God, we need to be aware of language’s limitations, lest we turn our theological concepts into conceptual idolatry. Our relationship to even our most cherished images needs to include critical suspicion of what those images can and cannot do.

Natalie Carnes takes the argument one step further. She says that iconoclasm (the impulse to combat an image) contains within itself the seeds of iconophilia (veneration or recognition of the image’s power). “Without iconoclasm, iconophilia risks idolatry. Without iconophilia, iconoclasm turns to despair.”