Holy and unholy images

Image is everything, or so claimed the old Canon advertising campaign starring Andre Agassi. Our culture is suffused with images, but then again, I suspect that all human culture since the beginning of recorded history has been. Pharaohs built grandiose monuments to themselves and their gods, and covered their buildings with ornate artwork. Museums are littered with sculpture from the classical world; if so much has survived, one can only imagine how much there was to begin with. The Jewish Temple, even, was covered with images of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers (cf. 1 Kings 6:14-). And, since time immemorial, Christian churches have been full of images, leaving aside the periods of iconoclasm (that St. John of Damascus answered definitively and despite that, most Protestants continue).

So, to say that our culture is unique in its image-saturation is false. But, there is something different about the images that we see. Public art, whether that be billboards, television, films, or sculpture, is often not designed to inspire, but to allure, to seduce. It’s difficult to watch network television, surf commercial websites, or even drive down the road, without being bombarded with near occasions of sin. I’ve gotten rid of cable television, but I’d have to retire to a monastery to avoid it all. And, with my unfortunate sticky memory for images, even if I avoid it, it’s still there, in my mind.

What can be done about this plague? I propose that one solution has been with us all along, just pushed back to the margins. Our churches used to be full of images, so did Catholic homes. Statues, paintings, icons: they saturated the imagination of generations past. Today, at least in this diocese, most of our churches, being built since the 1960’s, are nearly barren; and, to avoid being seen as religious fanatics, many of us keep home decoration similarly subdued. There is simply little left to combat the images in which our culture delights. So, fight fire with fire, so to speak. Surround yourself with holy images that the unholy ones might have less power. Iconoclasm in Christianity, when not surrounded by a culture that similarly prohibits images, is a recipe for disaster.

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4 Responses to “Holy and unholy images”


  1. 1 Bekah January 2, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    You are right on target. You cannot force yourself to not think about something, you have to replace it with something else to focus on.

  2. 2 tAE January 10, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    Wow, very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. 3 Edmund C. January 10, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks for the compliment…

    Got a laugh out of your link to this piece, by the way…a priest I’m not, just a lowly molecular biologist and Catholic layman.


  1. 1 In defense of Imagery « The Road Well Traveled Trackback on January 2, 2007 at 2:17 pm

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