All of these modes of non-verbal communication matter very much when we consider how culture now surrounds us with images. Whether these images are experienced using a television, a computer screen, the cinema, advertising media, the printed page, the choreography of art or the tribal cues of sport, we are bombarded with images and have become accustomed to reacting to images even when we do not verbalize the content that has been communicated to us.
How we understand and experience an image changes with the rest of our culture. For example, as 21st century Christians we can look upon the cross and experience a message of salvation. A 1st century Roman would have experienced the same image as one of terror, shame and death. And a 21st century non-believer: how might he or she experience the cross? Is this recognized as a “Christian” symbol (whatever that might mean), or as some kind of cultural baggage? Is the cross a sign of salvation and hope, of something “spiritual” or (God forbid!) a sign of oppression, of unloving judgment?
If we were to begin an advertising campaign, what images would elicit the greatest response/interest from non-believers who are seeking a truth which is outside of themselves? We could, for example, run a campaign leading up to Christmas and use an image of the infant Jesus in a manger, with Mary and Joseph present. To a Christian, or to one familiar with the scriptural stories of Jesus’ birth, this image might say “Christmas”. But to a person with no knowledge of the Bible, the image might say very little. In contrast, a lighted candle might be a nice neutral image that would allow a viewer to project onto the image his/her own idea of what “spiritual” means, but such neutrality and projection could foster the danger that one can be “spiritual” and yet lacking in faith.
Even if we choose to be pessimistic, and to believe that the surfeit of images in our culture is a sign (!) of a descent into a post-literate culture, then we can recall that much of what we take for granted in the Church arose in a pre-literate culture. Stained glass windows evolved to tell bible stories using images. But stained glass only really works for someone inside the church building to see them, and our challenge is to communicate outside the building. The fictive images found on the Internet, while potentially infinite, are in fact no more than a pale reflection of a robust, physical, and more complicated world of human persons, objects, and interpersonal relations. Reality is more than image, and the reality of faith is both transcendent and immanent.
Let’s define a couple of terms. By transcendent I mean that which is beyond/above us. To use a rough analogy: if we are in a swimming pool and God is standing above us on the diving board, God is transcendent to/from us. When God dives into the pool with us, He becomes immanent (present with us). Our challenge in communication is that people awash in images, while they very much seek the transcendent (however they may define this), can remain restricted within the world of images, and to experience the faith—the transforming reality of new life in Christ—they must experience the immanence, the immediate presence, of God with us. They must come to experience that God is both on the diving board and in the pool with us. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … (Jn. 1.14).
People who do not know God will not come to know Him if we communicate using only “Church language,” whether this language is one of words or images. We can, and must, continue to seek ways to communicate verbally and visually, but I suggest that no sign or symbol will be effective in moving those who don’t share the conventions of Church language. We must, rather, focus on communication using non-verbal reality. As bearers of the name Christian, we must each become an icon of Christ. The message and reality of God’s mercy and love, of His delight in every one of His creatures, must be embodied. Those who do not know God will better come to know Him in how they experience God’s love and mercy, His delight, in and through us.
As an icon of Christ you will differ from a classical icon. You will not be written upon a wooden board covered in gesso-impregnated linen, using egg tempera and gold. You will not communicate using such signs and symbols as a halo, or the language of light coming forth from darkness. But in Christ you can embody His gaze upon the world. You can embody His arms which reach out. You can embody His giving of self. When you are experienced as this reality, the icon will truly be a window into the reality of holiness, and this language—as experienced by those to whom God sends you—will touch hearts, will open hearts to receive God’s saving Good News in words, signs, symbols. When we can embody the Word, the message and the receiver can become one.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg