Saturday, February 20, 2010

Confession: Some Biases

Having an ideal of openness does not mean that I come to the conversation as an empty vessel. I have biases that have developed as I develop my own theology of images. For instance: I reject a spirit/matter duality. I believe God has invested God's self in all of creation, and thus we can experience God in the material stuff of this world. Matter carries grace. It does not capture God in any way, but God is invested in it. We are made of grace-filled matter as well. We should not be ashamed of any part of ourselves - our body, mind, heart, spirit, etc. We encounter grace-filled matter with our whole selves, and these encounters demonstrate the interconnectedness not only of body, mind, heart, and spirit, but the common threads of grace that run through all of creation (of which we are apart). By extension, I have a hunch that God is invested in human-created images - in science fiction films, for instance - and the possibility is that we can encounter God through them. And so I ask, "Why not the image as a source for theology?" This question serves as a basis for the semester's conversation.

Below are a famous icon and the words of St. John of Damascus, which inspired my riffing above.

A 6th Century Icon of Jesus at Mt. Sinai, St. Katherine's Monastery

If you say that God ought only to be apprehended spiritually, then take away everything bodily, the lights, the fragrant incense, even vocal prayer, the divine mysteries themselves that are celebrated with matter, the bread, the wine, the oil of chrismation, the form of the cross. For these are all material: the cross, the sponge, the reed, the lance that pierced the life-bearing side. Either take away the reverence offered to all these, as impossible, or do not reject the honor of the images.


You, perhaps are exalted and immaterial and have come to transcend the body and as fleshless, so to speak, you spit with contempt on everything visible, but I, since I am a human being and wear a body, I long to have communion in a bodily way with what is holy and to see it.

- Saint John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, Trans. Andrew Louth (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press,
2003), p. 42-43.


  1. As you think about physicality and materiality, how are you thinking about film - particularly now as film can be digitized, and downloaded onto a mobile device?

    The moving pictures of films are elusive, linked to time, in a way that art or icons. Do you see the images of film as more or less etherial than static images? Does that effect how you encounter them spiritually?

  2. Ryan, great questions. Indeed, as you point out: the times are changing for the material of film! I'm reminded of the climax of Tarantino's "Inglorious Bastards" where thousands of old reels, the screen, and even the projector burst into flames. No longer will films be as vulnerable if they are stored digitally! Still, films are linked materially to the devices of projection and viewing. We are still material who view them as well. I'm not troubled as some film enthusiasts are about the prospect for losing the celluloid aspect of film's materiality.

    Moving picture images are indeed elusive. I find it interesting sometimes when I watch films to use the screen-grab function. In taking a still out of its context it creates a whole new work of art. Yet, looking at the still and trying to conjure up the magic of the film won't do at all. One could argue that much of the magic of film is linked to movement. Films capture objects and/or people in movement in time. Seen in this light, films share more in common with theater than they do with photography. Yet the film artists' control of the frame shares more in common with photography than theater (but that's another subject).

    I am very much affected by the aspect of moving aspect of the images. There is an aspect of not only ethereality but also of mortality that is conveyed through images coming and going as fast as they do. Watching images go by one feels time passing as well. As such, there is an immediacy to film. There is a hunger in me to be attentive to the moving image such that I not miss the magic. I am encouraged in this frame of mind to be an active participant in my film viewing, to catch little moments. Moving images (with audio I might add) capture a variety of my senses such that I often feel engaged in a unique way when watching a story unfold. Engaged holistically, the possibility for spirituality comes into play. Stories also add to this engagement, though it is not dependent on them. I am often surprised (when I am open to it) by the peculiar power of certain films that I had not expected to possess much of anything.

    What do you think?