Jeff Gundy teaches English at Bluffton College and worships at First Mennonite Church, where two larger-than-life figures of Jesus in stained glass grace the sanctuary.
From this we should learn that everything which is not united with our God and Christ
cannot be other than an abomination which we should shun and flee from. By this is meant all
Catholic and Protestant works and church services, meetings and church attendance, drinking
houses, civic affairs, the oaths sworn in unbelief and other things of that kind, which are highly
regarded by the world and yet are carried on in flat contradiction to the command of God, in
accordance with all the unrighteousness which is in the world. . .
-The Schleitheim Confession, Article IV
What the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.
Icon displayed, promoted and propounded on a Mennonite campus by a respected faculty member. "Mennonite Icons" for sale from the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee--the famous image of Dirk Willems turning back to rescue his pursuer. What's next? Infant baptism, god-parents, priests?
I ask these questions mostly ironically and without alarm, since for my whole adult life I have been engaged in another pursuit our forefathers and mothers would have consigned to the reign of the Prince of Darkness: making things out of words that aspire to both beauty and truth. I have more than once wondered that the work of writing poems, essays, and stories, which seems so inevitable a part of living--and which so many better Christians than me found to be so--should have been thought part of the "abomination" by our earnest forerunners.
Was their suspicion of icons of the same sort, the product of a zeal that led them to discard the beautiful and edifying babes of the Spirit with the bathwater of Christendom's corruptions, failures and excesses? I must admit that I think so. But what follows? If the early Anabaptists were mistaken about these things, how can we be sure they were right about anything? This is a tremendous opportunity for those who believe, as I do, in progressive revelation. But it is also a considerable muddle.
The desire to make icons and to meditate upon them is part, surely, of a greater hunger that has welled up among so many Mennonites and others in our time. The need for beauty, and the sense that (as Keats suggested long ago) beauty and truth are somehow intimately linked, has sent many of us in search of foods for our souls that the severities of traditional Mennonite practice once forbade.
Who can be against whatever strengthens Christians in their faith and practice? Yet, I must confess, some part of me still holds back a bit. The icons Don Lemons shows us are beautiful, entrancing, moving; yet their stylized, idealized figures also seem a bit disconcerting to me.
The Pantocrator is a marvelous image of a possible Christ, but it is not Jesus. The Mother of God of Tenderness may be an image through which the spirit speaks, but it is not Mary, the mother of Jesus. If we remember that what we are viewing are aids to reflection, that icons are simply images (though images are not simple), that all of our images of beauty and truth and God are mere glimpses and gestures toward something that remains ever beyond our grasp, then why not make them, ponder them, enjoy and share them?
But we must not forget.
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