John Janzen has used a semiotic perspective in his writing on African traditions of health and healing and Mennonite life and worship. From 1982-1992 he directed Kauffman Museum at Bethel College, and led the team that developed its permanent exhibition, including segments on Mennonite worship and life. He is currently Professor of Anthropology and Director of the African Studies Center at the University of Kansas - Lawrence.
Don Lemons' article on icons is a valuable portrayal of his and his family's pilgrimage into Syrian Orthodoxy. In telling of his own spiritual life, he evokes the powerful tradition of icons and worship at Saint George's congregation of Wichita. I can attest to the moving services at St. George, especially now that Don now sings in the choir. My appreciation for Orthodoxy was kindled long ago when, as a student in Paris, I occasionally attended the Russian Orthodox church in the 14th district near where I lived.
Yet I confess puzzlement by Lemons' article and the editors' decision to publish it in Mennonite Life. Only two references in the article even hint at a Mennonite connection. The first is in the title, "Icons for Mennonites;" the second is the oblique last sentence suggesting that icons might make us better Mennonites. Lemons does not show how Mennonites might insert the Orthodox practice of icons and all they represent into Anabaptist worship. The editors' decision to publish this article is in any case but one of a number of recent uses of visual materials, including icons, by Mennonite scholars and church agencies. This "iconitis" among our church leadership is almost completely unexamined and unexplained.
Whatever the reason behind these recent flirtations with icons and Lemons' invitation to consider icons, it seems to me that the incompatibilities of the Anabaptist and Orthodox approaches to incarnation are glaring and irreconcilable. They have to do with approaches to how the sacred is expressed in sentient form. We are dealing with two diametrically opposed semiotic stances, that is types of signs in which the sacred and our relationship to the divine are embedded. The distinctive Anabaptist perspective is evident in the way that the elements in the eucharist are symbols of the blood and body of Christ, and likewise the act of (adult) baptism is a symbol of new birth in the church. The elements are not the actual (transubstantiated) body and blood of Christ, just as the water of baptism is not the transforming stuff of new life, but stands for it. The rejection of transubstantiation (positively put, the assertion of symbolic representation) was a pillar of 16th century Anabaptist conviction, and so far as I know that view continues to this day. This symbolic stance on the eucharist and baptism is paralleled in teachings in other domains of life. We affirm the truth of our words; we do not swear them in courts and contracts. Swearing is rejected because it raises the word to a magical force, or if you will, an essentialist expression. We are to transparently "let our yeas be yeas, and our nays be nays." Most importantly of all, perhaps, is the separation of affairs of the spirit, of power, from those of the state. God's spirit, not the sword, is to be the source of power in the Anabaptist Christian's life. In Anabaptist Christianity, the only arena in which the actual, essential, body of Christ lives on is in the Church, the "body of believers." This body of believers is Christ's kingdom on earth. The word of God lives on in the body of believers as they discern and study Scripture. For Anabaptists, the only truly iconic sign is Christ's body, the church and its believers. All other referents are symbols. (Elsewhere I have written of the "contingent relationship of form to meaning" in Anabaptist-Mennonite worship and worship spaces.)
The Orthodox icon, in Lemons' essay, is an incarnation of the divine in human materiality that is parallel to the word, song and eucharist. The extent to which Orthodox worshipers "venerate" or "worship" icons is a matter of definition. Lemons' statement that he "venerates but does not worship icons " notwithstanding, icons are "sanctified," they are kissed by believers, and they are held to have the power to work miracles. (1) No doubt sophisticated Orthodox Christians may make the distinction between the image and its referent, be it Christ redeemer, the Mother of God, or an apostle. But the underlying ethos of the icon is that it carries the essence of the prototype in its very form. That is why it may only be copied literally. Semiotician Thomas Sebeok identifies this quality of the icon's essence of its referent as "typological similarity."
The congregation-centered Anabaptist-Mennonite incarnation of the divine lives and commemorates the life of Christ through discipleship, servanthood, justice, discerning and teaching the scriptures, and joyful singing, among many expressions. Visual images are certainly appropriate, but icons they are not, in Anabaptist understanding. Let our Orthodox brothers and sisters venerate their icons. We want to visit them and worship with them. They may appreciate our discipleship within the body of the believers' church, and our congregational singing, and the work of MCC worldwide. Both forms are appropriate within the community of Christian churches.
"Mennonite icon" is, in my view, an oxymoron--a combination of contradictory or incongruous words. There is no way the orthodox meaning of an Orthodox icon can be glibly transferred to Mennonite spirituality and congregational life without totally rejecting the received Anabaptist understanding of the incarnation. Visual imagery in Mennonite worship and commemoration needs to be introduced from altogether different grounds--appropriate creativity, contextual referents, and the eye of Mennonite artists.
1. See chapter on icons in Serge Boulgakoff's L'Orthodoxie (Paris, 1958).
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