We love images. And we hate them, too. They weave us together and rip us apart. The church fought over images in the 8th and 9th centuries, as well as during the Reformation. Americans debate images and monuments connected with everything from the Ten Commandments to the Confederacy. Embracing and defending some images, while rejecting or defacing others, are preoccupations as old as humanity itself.
Just ask Hatshepsut.
The Egyptian Queen
In the 15thc. BC, an Egyptian queen named Hatshepsut co-ruled Egypt with her son. After she died, her statues were disfigured. No one took a sledgehammer to the entire statue with sloppy zeal. No, with meticulous calculation, they broke off her iconic cobra headdress and her nose. Her statue remained, but her symbol of authority (the headdress) and her source of respiratory life (her nose) were removed.
In effect, her opponents took a statue that looked powerfully alive and transformed it into something impotently dead.
You can see chisel marks—scars of demolition.
Queen Hatshepsut is one of about 40 statues currently at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. The exhibit is called, “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt.” Noses, hands, eyes, and some hieroglyphics have been broken off or rubbed out. Edward Rothstein notes that this “is not random erosion. It was accomplished deliberately and with great force. You can see chisel marks—scars of demolition.”
This queen’s opponents understood something that we, thousands of years later, still get—that images are not neutral. They evoke emotions and prompt actions. Just consider how we, in our own lives, deal with three kinds of images: of ourselves, of others, and of God. And our desire to curate, corrupt, and cultivate these images for good or for ill.
It should come as no surprise to readers of the Bible that stories of humans and images are interwoven narratives. The first time God mentions people, he doesn’t get three Hebrew words out of his mouth before he’s already used the words “man” and “image”: na'aseh adam betsalmenu.
Those three Hebrew words become seven in English, “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26). Adam and Eve are only in the divine planning stages, and the Creator’s already married image to humanity and humanity to image.
It’s no wonder, then, that we’re so attached to images; we are one. We are human hyphens between the celestial and the terrestrial.
What’s both frightening and fascinating about us is that we devote whole swaths of our lives to curating our own image, corrupting the images of others, and largely ignoring the cultivation of the divine image we bear.
Curation, Corruption, and Cultivation
We talk plenty today about “curating our image” on social media But we didn’t need Facebook and Twitter to teach us that. Humanity’s been at this game a long time. Cain’s smartass reply to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is but him choosing the “Innocent” filter on Instagram to lighten the hellish glow of the fraternal blood smearing his hands (Gen. 4:9). Jacob curated his image by literally assuming the image of his older brother, Esau. He raided his brother’s wardrobe in order to abscond the blessing from his blind father (Gen. 27:15). David curated lamblike innocence after ordering the death of Bathsheba’s husband on the battlefield (2 Sam. 11:25). And on and on the unhappy tale goes.
Sin never wants to be sin, Luther says. It always wants to be righteousness. So we curate our image, fine-tune it, mask it, makeup it, lie about it, do whatever it takes to make sure we gain a thumbs-up in the eyes of others. After all, we do have an image to protect.
If curating our image necessitates corrupting our neighbor’s, well, you gotta do what you gotta do. This again, is anything but novel. Adam threw Eve under Eden’s bus (Gen. 3:12). Absalom trashed his dad’s reputation, and enhanced his own image, to lay the groundwork for the coup d’état in which he would usurp the throne (2 Sam. 15:1-6).
We all know disfiguring the images of others doesn’t take a chisel. All you need is an iPhone.
Today, corrupting the image of our adversary or opponent is like shooting fish in a barrel. Step right up and pick your poison: you can photoshop Hitler’s uniform and moustache onto a politician; make a mocking meme of an actor or athlete you don’t like; or, if all else fails, you can even go retro and circulate nasty rumors about them.
We may not leave the telltale “marks of demolition” on people, as the iconoclasts did on Queen Hatshepsut’s statue. But we all know disfiguring the images of others doesn’t take a chisel. All you need is an iPhone.
The Wardrobe of Mary’s Womb
While we’re busy squandering our time, energy, and love on curating and corrupting images, God stands over in the corner, hand held out, fingers beckoning us to walk over. “Come here,” he says. When we do, he leans down and whispers, “My dear child, leave all this foolishness behind. Come, follow me. I’ve got a much better plan for you. Leave the mirror behind, in which you see your image. And leave the window behind, too, through which you see the image of your neighbor. And lock your eyes elsewhere: on the image of my Son. He and he alone is my better plan.”
Let me nuance—or correct—something I wrote a couple of paragraphs ago. We are not so much “human hyphens between the celestial and the terrestrial” as we are those who are in the One who is himself that hyphen between heaven and earth. Christ is the image of God, and we are made and remade in that image. Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). We stand before him, our faces unveiled, “beholding the glory of the Lord, and being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
In the wardrobe of Mary’s womb, the Creator everlastingly clothed himself in our human nature.
To cultivate the divine image we bear is to live and move and have our being in Christ, whose image we receive by grace. He is the God who became the very image we are. In the wardrobe of Mary’s womb, the Creator everlastingly clothed himself in our human nature. Bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, soul of our soul, pain of our pain and tears of our tears.
To see our true image, our true reflection, is to gaze into the face of Jesus, God with us, the image-creator who became the image-bearer.
Like a craftsman painstakingly sculpting a statue, Christ transforms us into the image of himself. Sometimes it feels like he’s taken a chisel and hammer to us. At other times, it feels like the gentle stroke of one brushing away a few loose grains of sand.
Either way, the hands at work on us bear their own “marks of demolition” in the stigmata of grace. In those tokens of sacrificial love, we spy not destruction but our own reconstruction as those who are the recreated images of the Father’s mercy.
“Let us remake man in our image,” the Father says.
And from the cross, that crucified Icon of love responds, “Done.”