Ancient Commandments; Modern Applications: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
Hespeler, 4 September, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 20:1-6, Psalm 97, Romans 1:18-25
have spent some time over these summer months looking at some of the key commandments of the Old Testament and asking how, if at all, they apply to the lives that we live today in a very different world from the one that first received the commandments.
I have saved what I think is the most essential commandment – the one that might just lie at the heart of all of the rest – until the end. The commandment that prohibits the worship of idols is actually quite simple and straightforward, but its very simplicity is what has made it hard for people to follow it. The command says simply this in the best known King James Version: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”
It is specifically a prohibition against making representative art by carving something out of metal, wood or stone. If you wanted to be very literal minded, you could argue that making images by melting and molding or by drawing on pieces of paper or other media are okay and that the commandment only prohibits engraved images. But that doesn’t seem to be the spirit of the commandment. The idea seems to be that any sort of representational art is simply not acceptable.
All of those people who have taken this commandment as part of their heritage – that includes Jews, Muslims and Christians – have had their own ideas about how to observe this commandment. Conservative Jews have tended to look with suspicion on any sort of artwork that represents something that you could recognize. Muslims have even more strongly rejected such art, to such a degree that the only acceptable art in strict Islamic culture is calligraphy – that is, beautifully written texts, ideally of the Koran.
Christians, as in many things, have taken their own approach. They have often ended up arguing and disagreeing over this commandment and what it allows more than any other group. Some of the earliest Christian traditions that fed into what we call today the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches strongly embraced the use of art work as a way of promoting their faith and as a teaching tool for the faithful. That is why the churches of those traditions are often full of beautiful works of art that depict various heroes of the faith and stories from the Bible and from Christian history.
When the Protestant Church came along, there was initially a big reaction against the use of art in churches. Some early Protestants banished all artwork from their churches. The Presbyterians were absolutely one such denomination and the earliest Presbyterian Churches were emptied of all sculptures and the walls were whitewashed. The windows might have colourful stained glass but did not represent anything.
And, as you can imagine, Presbyterians thought they were so much better than everyone else because they didn’t have any artwork while other groups, like the Roman Catholics, tended to see things the other way around and thought they were so much better because they used art work in good ways. That is what we often do with commandments, of course, use them as reasons to put other people down and lift ourselves up. And, honestly, if that’s all we get out of a commandment like this one, I am quite sure that we’ve missed the point.
Is this commandment really about banning artwork? Or is artwork just the surface of a deeper problem that it is trying to get us to deal with?
I have a hard time believing that art itself is the problem. When I think of all of the good that has come out of the ability of very talented human beings to beautifully render the world that they experience, I know that art is a blessing – a divine blessing given by God. This is true of both sacred and secular art.
I know that I would not have the same appreciation of God my creator if I had not spent time contemplating some of my favourite paintings by Monet, Van Gough and Da Vinci. I remember an afternoon spent in a university library in New Jersey where I contemplated a painting of a very angry Jesus that probably taught me more about my saviour than all the studies I have ever read of the Gospels. Art is able to speak to us about earthly things and divine things in ways that words cannot approach. The problem, I am certain, is not art itself. The problem has to do with what we do with the things that we create with our artistry.
Of course, when this commandment was first spoken, it was spoken to people living in a different world. It was a world where it was common to believe, not in one universal God, but in a great variety of gods. Even more important, people believed that, when they made statues and carvings and representations of these gods, it gave them a certain amount of power and influence over them. These idols could be easily manipulated by sacrifices, magic words or rituals with the statues.
The target of this commandment was not the statues and artistic representations themselves but the attitude that generally went with them. What God is saying with this commandment is that he is not a god like these other gods that the people have been used to. He will not be captured within a statue or carving. God will not be manipulated or forced to behave in ways that people may want.
So actually, if all you do with this commandment is read it literally and don’t allow people to make statues, carvings or other works of representational art, you have actually missed the point of it because it is quite possible to ban all of those things and yet still hold onto the attitude that you can use earthly things to try to manipulate God. Idols in the ancient world may have been exclusively made out of statues and carvings but human beings have been infinitely creative when it comes to creating idols.
So let us consider some of the idols that people do use today. What are those things that are made by human hands or minds, that may be good or beautiful in themselves but that people then take and think that they give them the power to say what God will do?
We are in this world surrounded by things and events that just happen and that have no apparant meaning in themselves. But we, as human beings have the ability to look at these seeming random events and find patterns and meaning in them. To take one simple example from recent newspaper headlines, let’s say that somebody invents a brand new item of swimwear for women – a suit that covers the entire body except for the face, feet and hands – and calls it a Burkini. This is, on one level, just a fairly random event. Someone creates a new product and starts selling it – something that happens every single day.
But people don’t just see it as a random event, do they? They see all kinds of meaning in it whether that meaning was intended or not. Some see it as a new symbol of freedom for women because it allows women who come from a culture of extreme modesty the freedom to go to the beach that they didn’t have before. Others, of course, see a symbol of the repression of women and the opposite of freedom. And, of course, there are certainly those who see the burkini as a symbol of much darker things such as terrorism. And so very quickly the idea of the burkini has become much bigger and more laden with meaning than the thing itself. This is something that we human beings do very well. And sometimes the idea of a thing becomes so large that the idea begins to define the thing. That is when we are in the territory of idolatry.
Take the idea of doctrine for example. Doctrine is just a fancy word that means a list of things that people of faith believe. It is, for example, a doctrine of our church that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Another doctrine: we believe that we are saved by grace through faith and not by our works. And doctrines are very good and beautiful. Good doctrine is also true.
But doctrine, no matter how good or true it is, can also become an idol. When you use it, for example, to feel superior to others who might believe differently from you, it becomes a graven image that serves your own desires rather than driving you to become a better person. And when your understanding of your doctrine begins to define God for you in a way that prevents God from acting outside of the box that you have made for him so that God can no longer surprise you or challange your view of the world, you have created an image of your God that is no less immovable than any ancient statue of stone or wood.
Here is another thought: if doctrine can become an idol, so can Scripture. Here, once again, the Bible is a good thing. It is a gift from God to us, given for our benefit and blessing. The Bible is both true and beautiful. And if you are using the Scriptures to teach and challenge yourself to go deeper into your knowledge of God and of yourself, you are using it well. But not everyone uses the Scriptures in that way.
As Christians, we believe that the Bible is authoritative and that it is inspired by God. But we often forget the connection between those two things. The Bible is authoritative because it is inspired by God. In other words, the Bible is not authoritative in itself but it derives that authority from God. God is the ultimate authority and the Scriptures only have authority because they point to that ulimate. The problem comes because the Bible is a defined, earthly thing that people can own and know and master. It is possible for a human being to memorize the whole of the Bible – to know every word of it because it is an earthly object. Not many people know it that well, of course. Few know it as well as they think they do, but it is at least theoretically possible to gain a mastery over this book.
The problem comes when people take their knowledge of this book (whether it is complete or not) and begin to act as if they know the Truth (with a capital T) because they know this book.
I remember when I was much younger thinking in exactly this way – thinking that it was possible for me to always be right. I thought it was simple. All I needed to do was to know what the Bible said about every subject that mattered. If I could quote the Bible, I would always be in the right. It was a very childish and naive worldview of course. The truth can never be reduced down to a single quote and the Bible doesn’t always speak with one voice on all matters anyways, but that was how I thought it worked and many people still think that way today.
When we do that, when we take our mastery of this book and turn it into the mastery of the truth and of the God that it points to, we turn this good thing that is the Bible into a dangerous idol. Yes God inspired the Bible, but whatever that means (and the question of what inspiration is and how it works is a huge question) if God were ever to allow the Bible to define and limit God, at that moment, God would cease to be God. Anytime we take the Bible and think that it defines God and especially when we use our understanding of the Bible to exalt ourselves over others, we are making unto ourselves a graven image.
There is a reason for this commandment. It was given to a people who had a very simple and graphic idea what an idol was. We are not particularly tempted to make idols like they would have thought of them. But that does not mean that we don’t have ways of taking our creations – especially our ideas – and turning them into very powerful idols in their own way.
#140CharacterSermon We have this way of turning our ideas into idols that seek to confine and limit God. This is foolish and dangerous..