In a recent forum conversation for my Church History class at Gordon-Conwell (Theological Seminar), I came upon a discussion about what the correct response should be to modern day criticism of Christian symbols. Primarily those which non-Christians rightly point out as previously belonging to pagan religions. To respond to this I jumped backwards in history to an earlier period where art and symbols in the Christian church came under heavy attack from the religion of Islam. Dr. Donald Fairbairn (GCTS faculty and long time missionary in the Ukraine) gave a brief history of icons during our start of the year integrative seminar on the Beauty of Holiness, wherein he briefly discussed the history of the iconoclast controversy. The reason icons became contentious amongst Christian communities was because of the criticism of Muslims who saw, not only that Christian’s had many icons, but that they claimed to worship a trinity, 3-in-1. To the Muslim mind there cannot be a 3-in-1, and any depictions of Christ or the saints are idols as well, and so they conclude that Christians are holding severely idolatrous beliefs. To what end?
The criticism and judgement led to a series of councils in the Christian community where icons were discussed. Interestingly, those bodies which condemned icons were comprised primarily of political figures, whereas those councils which continued to uphold them as beautiful pieces of art and essential components of Christian worship were comprised of the leading religious figures, (Dr. Fairbairn, Iconoclast Controversy). In our western atmosphere of political correctness it is all to easy to respond to the criticism of our symbols by setting aside the Christmas trees, our crosses and the Ikthus. But I don’t think that is the correct response. One of my favorite uses of pagan symbols for the defense and promulgation of the gospel is by St. Patrick when he ministered in northern Europe. The winters in this region are cold and dead, and as a sign of hope that the death and illness would pass the tribal people cut down an evergreen and brought it into their homes. St. Patrick capitalized on this action in order to demonstrate to them the redemption of God from the pain and death of sin! Thus, the Christmas tree has become far far more in our traditions than a mere decoration. Its presence at the celebration of the birth of Christ reminds us that death will pass and that, like the evergreens, we have eternal life in Jesus Christ. What if we refused to give in to false ideal of political correctness and simply explained what it is that art, which is truly what we are discussing, means to us and to the world?
I’ll share this remarkable quote from Clement of Alexandria, cited by William Tennent in his book Theology in the context of World Christianity, “[Clement of Alexandria] said that the pagans were given the stars to worship so they might not fall into atheism: ‘It was the road given to them, that in worshipping the stars they might look up to God.'” (Tennent, 44). So what if non-Christians around us criticize our symbols and icons? Every symbol we have demonstrates the redemption of God, and the more we have from the religions of the world the greater the testimony. We could perhaps rephrase Clement and say, “These are the objects we have set before them, and that they have welcomed into their homes, so that we might also be welcome with the story of the Savior.”