Disciplining our eyes with holy images

Images shape our desires. As much as we like to think we’re immune to their influence, that we can encounter them without letting them tell us what is good or true or beautiful, they tend to work a subtle magic on us, especially after years of constant exposure.

I’m talking not just about advertisements and entertainment media, which perpetuate the myth that only one particular type of female body is attractive, and likewise one particular type of male body, and train us to desire that type for ourselves and for our partner.

I’m talking too about the seemingly innocuous images posted on social media. Studies have shown that regularly browsing Facebook, for example, can lead to depression, as users engage in social comparison that may cause them to resent both others’ lives as well as the image of themselves they feel they need to continuously maintain. A network member posts a photo of the just-because gift her amazing, so-thoughtful husband just bought her, and it makes you feel less loved. Another one posts a selfie taken from his scuba dive in Malta, and you wonder where all the adventure has gone in your life. A friend from high school posts a whole album of birthday photos of her two-year-old, and you are reminded of your ticking biological clock, or of her twenty-two-year-old in cap and gown, and you wish your kid had decided to go to college.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds and become idols. Whether it’s a perfume commercial on TV or an exotic dinner photo on Instagram, we need to break the power certain images have over us. Instead of allowing images to name us (“ugly,” “boring,” “unwanted,” “failure”), we must name them—denounce as false and unholy any image that claims ultimate authority in our lives, or that tries to redefine who we are against the definition scripture already gives us: we are Christ’s.

In his essay “The Desire of the Church,” published in The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (InterVarsity Press, 2005), Willie James Jennings discusses the distortion of sight and desire that is the result of the Fall. The tree of knowledge, he writes, was the first unholy icon in human history—an icon in the sense of being “a point of focus that facilitates desire and guides relationships” and “nurtures our seeing and knowing,” and unholy because to look on it was to begin the journey of disobedience. Gazing on the unholy icon of the tree, Adam and Eve saw themselves refracted through it, instead of gazing on God and seeing themselves reflected. By turning their gaze off God and fixating it on something lesser, they stopped seeing themselves, each other, and their Creator rightly.

“The only way to reverse this journey of disobedience,” Jennings says, “is to establish a new point of focus.” So into humanity comes the holy icon—Jesus Christ—whose life overcomes the fracture and fragment of desire. As the image of the invisible God, he reorients our gaze back onto the holy.   Continue reading “Disciplining our eyes with holy images”