Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia
Paperback: Stanford UP, 2018
Buy Now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
To write words on a page, or to draw an image, is to restrict and confine. The full presence of a person, creature, or object can never be confined in this representation, and yet they are present in powerful ways in the representation. These dynamics of the specific limits of an image, and the presence that is contained in the same image, are central to Natalie Carnes’s insightful new book Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia.
Carnes challenges us to consider the necessity of both images and image-breaking, for the life and flourishing of human communities, and especially church communities. She traces these dynamics ultimately to the Incarnation: in Christ, we have a specific image of God within time and space, and yet, this image does not negate the immanent presence of God throughout creation at all times and in all places. At the heart of the book are a series of chapters that trace images of the life of Christ, through birth, life, crucifixion/burial, resurrection, and ascension. She offers a number of images (some, but not all, of which are reproduced in the book) that have conveyed the presence of Christ through history, and also reflects on the limitations of these images and the ways in which they have been broken.
In the book’s conclusion, Carnes writes:
Christ fulfills this dynamic of making and breaking. Christ is the Image of God, broken for the people of God, who reveals God in his very brokenness. Both breaking and making images are persistent features of God’s life with the people of God. Together these actions say, God is here, but that does not mean God is not elsewhere. Both are needed. Without iconoclasm, iconophilia risks idolatry. Without iconophilia, iconoclasm turns to despair. The angel’s proclamation that Christ is not here can only be hopeful together with an affirmation of Christ’s presence in another place or another way (183).
In reading this book, my mind couldn’t help by jump back to Willie Jennings’s narration of the Acts 10-11 story of Peter in the House of Cornelius. The formative image of God in the Torah that was central to the life of the Israelite people, had to be broken (at least in part) precisely because God was doing something that was bigger than the ethnic confines of the Jewish people. As Jennings emphasizes, Peter finds himself in this vulnerable place between adoration of the image of God in the Torah and the iconoclasm that God was bringing. Carnes and Jennings are right, I believe, our life is one of continual discernment. What images do we need in order to know the presence of God and to be pushed deeper into this presence, and what images inhibit our knowledge of God’s presence and need to be broken? Carnes work, in particular, although it can be dense at times, is a timely and powerful meditation that church leaders (and perhaps especially worship leaders) should read and meditate upon.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of a number of books, including most recently Reading for the Common Good (IVP Books, 2016) and the forthcoming How the Body of Christ Talks (Brazos, Spring 2019)