When most think of Luke, they think of the ancient physician who wrote a biography about Jesus. But most don’t think of Luke as an artist. In fact, Luke is counted as the patron saint of artists.
According to the writings of the early church, Luke was one of the first people to paint an “icon” of Mary, Jesus’ mother. What is an “icon?” The Latin word eikon simply means “image.” The early church didn’t have cameras. They didn’t have photograph albums, and they couldn’t “tag” Jesus on Facebook. Icons were simple, stylized portraits used for Christian worship. They mostly were portraits of Jesus and related saints, as well as painting narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
They were also highly symbolic: the color red, for example, was usually used to convey
humanity. Jesus’ two fingers were meant to indicate His two natures: fully God, fully human. So if you had a basic understanding of the symbols and traditions of ancient iconography, you could find a rich meaning in the symbols of the early Church.
FROM ICON TO MEME
I say “if,” because as we fast forward to the present day, we realize that the concept of “image” has become completely unglued. Beauty is assumed to be in the eye of the beholder, and along with it come goodness and truth.
We have replaced the icons of old with the memes of the temporary. A “meme,” for those not tech-savvy, is basically a cultural fad. It can refer to a viral video, a cartoon, a picture, a phrase, or anything else that can easily be passed around Facebook and the blogosphere.
In his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the arrival of television, the combination of sound and image, as contributing to a breakdown in critical reasoning. And so, too, memes have shaped the way we view and interpret the world around us.
A simply contrast between an “icon” and a “meme” shows us the way that our way of using image to make sense of the world has shifted radically:
|Communicate truth||Interpret truth|
|Convey purpose||Promote play|
THE JESUS MEME: WHY HE’S STILL COOL
Author and professor Barry Taylor writes:
“People would rather be perceived as cool than good; it is a postmodern virtue…Surprisingly, or not so perhaps, Jesus remains cool. It’s just his official earthly representation – the church – that has been deemed ‘uncool.’…The perception that in spite of any ‘religious affiliations’ Jesus remains cool and is a subject of interest in the postmodern matrix extends to a continuing number of publications, books, and magazines devoted to wresting Jesus away from the authority and confines of the Christian church.…This is theology with a larger populist intention, the ultimate goal being the ‘saving’ of Jesus, to quote a recent title. Saving Jesus from what exactly? The stultifying, smothering confines of the church, and particularly the fundamentalists or conservatives, who, the consensus seems to say, have done Jesus a grave injustice by making him out to be just like them – uptight, overly religious in the pejorative sense, lacking a sense of humor, and disconnected from the way things really are.” (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 153)
The end result? A steady stream of cultural representations of Jesus. While the icons of old conveyed Jesus as He was, the memes of today say more about the person who created them. Some are serious, some are intended to just be jokes.
We have Madonna, who “crucified” herself for one of her concert performances, saying later that “we all need to be Jesus in our time.”
The song “Personal Jesus,” originally by Depeche Mode, has been covered by several other artists, including the dark imagery of Marilyn Manson’s video.
Kanye West did not one, but three different music videos for “Jesus Walks,” where classic imagery was blended with various settings of human need and depravity.
Urban outfitters has made quite a profit selling “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts.
South Park portrays Jesus as a kind but typically ineffective character on a call-in advice show.
The film Dogma gave birth to the “Buddy Christ” image, used by the church in the film to make Jesus more appealing to the masses.
And if anyone is looking to get their pastor a gift, look no further than the Jesus action figure.
The point is that we live in a world of great spiritual confusion. Like Theophilus, people have a basic idea about who Jesus was, but are unsure of their feelings toward the church.
In our world, the church has unfortunately shied away from clear teaching on Jesus in the name of political correctness. We prefer teachings on social activism, happy marriages, and financial advice. The result is that Jesus is increasingly being defined by those outside the walls rather than within them.
Icons were born from the idea that just as God became man, so too could truth became solid reality through artistic expression. But even after Jesus returned to the Father after the resurrection, the Body of Christ was still present on earth in the form of His followers. The Church has the great privilege of showing the world who Jesus is in both word and deed.
I like Luke because as both physician and painter, he possessed both the sharp mind of a scientist and the tender heart of an artist. The magnificence of this series is that as we move through Luke’s gospel, we’ll see him paint a new and incredible picture of Jesus, watching his brush move across the canvas as we turn each page of his account.
So we hope you enjoy this series. Be sure to check back frequently to interact more as we grow together.