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Saturday, December 15, 2018

December 15, 2018

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This week’s images were fairly challenging for the readers who responded. Again this week, no one really liked the one feminine representation of Christ, an interesting development that probably needs more scrutiny. What is it that is off-putting about a feminine Christ? Is it merely the divergence from the historical Jesus, or a startling difference from what we’re used to? Or could it be something more than that? What do you think? Why is a feminine representation of this kind difficult?

The representation of Jesus as a black man drew some responses that were hard to interpret in the way that emoji can be – was the laughing face derisive, or delighted? I am not sure. Again, did those responses, which were all in the form of emoji, signify surprise, or did the image uncover something in need of healing?

One person has been intrigued by the hand gestures in many of the images, a helpful response that has prompted me to pay more attention to them myself.

Several respondents remarked that they are not thrilled with this year’s Online Advent Calendar format, and would prefer a written reflection over the daily images. Others are finding this change interesting and engaging. I’d like to suggest a book that might be of interest to both groups: Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture, by Margaret R. Miles. (Wipf and Stock, 2006.) Miles is a historical theologian, and the first woman to earn tenure at the Harvard Divinity School.

Our souls are, as Margaret Miles writes, “affected in fundamental and structural ways by their imprinting by objects of vision,” whether or not that is consciously understood. In this book, Miles focuses exclusively on single images with which one might engage over an extended period of time, since that would have been the experience of ancient and medieval Christians. Engagement with such images is never an original, individual occurrence, however, because human beings live in company with one another and therefore share more or less interpretive context. No account of the role of images in the life of communities that assumes the perspective of only one group of person within the culture can even begin to tell us about the complexity of the images and their possible interpretations.

Sustained attention to visual images was a part of devotional practice for many ordinary people in a way that it is not for us, over-saturated as we are by a barrage of constantly-changing images whose purpose is something quite other than our sanctification. A visual image enables a more diffuse process of imagining together. The same image can inspire very different reactions in different people, including those separated in time from the object’s original context. Viewing a medieval painting in a museum, for example, is to view it in a setting almost completely removed from its context in time, space, and purpose of display.

The notion of “taste” was pretty much unknown before about 300 years ago, interestingly. For people before that time, images, or an image, had a cumulative effect on their whole self which was evident in their daily, ordinary life. But the contemplation of an image did not yield a single correct interpretation or suggestion for particular activities. According to Miles, the idea was not imitation of action, but of virtue. Images are very attractive, but they do not attract in order to impart information. They engage and train the will through the perceptions. The purpose of images in earlier ages was not to decorate spaces or add value to financial portfolios. Their purpose was to lead to changes in the will, and thence to changes in behavior. The community does, or should, aid in interpretation.

An authentic Christian spirituality must be at its very core imaginative. Art is a ministry, and must never be allowed to become marginalized or to degenerate into a self-indulgent pastime and/or consumer commodity. We embody this truth: God made us. Art also embodies this truth, and it is a powerful tool if viewed that way. One must be able to take one’s own experiences and from them imagine other possibilities. In only this way can we get out of ourselves enough to recognize other as different from ourselves and at the same time good. God is always calling us to look beyond, to see and be something more than our desire for the familiar would lead us to.

I believe that God calls us to flourishing, not familiarity.

—Baya Clare CSJ

What is it then, which distinguishes the outlook of great poets and artists from the arrogant subjectivism of common sense? Innocence and humility distinguish it. These persons prejudge nothing, criticise nothing. To some extent, their attitude to the universe is that of children: and because this is so, they participate to that extent in the Heaven of Reality.
–Evelyn Underhill

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