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The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology

Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau, eds
Published by InterVarsity Press in 2016

It is by now cliché to point out that contemporary culture is saturated with mediated images. Since Marshall McLuhan, it has also become increasingly commonplace to assume that this diverse profusion of images has replaced nature as the primary environment in which we live, move, and have our being. Such an overwhelming omnipresence of media is unsettling in the literal sense, since we are confronted each day with new and contradictory reflections of who we are and who we might be; but it also speaks to a longer historical unsettling, wherein modern media has completely usurped the imagination-shaping role that was once filled by icons, religious art, scriptural narratives, and the grand architectural expressions of Christian worship and devotion.

Although there is no turning back the clock, of course, a volume like The Image of God in an Image Driven Age provides a measure of hope by reminding Christians who are residing in faithful community that they can still witness to an alternative and redemptive imagination and resist the passivity induced by our contemporary submersion in advertising, media, and endless forms of entertainment. For, in contrast to the media-scape’s unstable mosaic, this book confirms that the Christian imaginary retains the means of providing a rich and coherent rendering of human personhood based on the biblical concept of the imago Dei.

This is not to suggest, however, that the imago Dei has exercised a stable and homogenizing influence throughout Christian history. Though it is the basis of any valid Christian anthropology, this doctrine has, like those of the atonement and the incarnation, resisted a strong interpretive consensus. The scriptural foundation is Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’” (NRSV). While this verse is breathtakingly profound in its implications, it is also maddeningly vague once one starts digging into it. Even so, three main interpretations have come to the fore throughout church history. One says that the image of God refers to our spiritual and rational capacities. We reflect God, and stand apart from the animals and plants, by virtue of our complex self-consciousness and rationality. Another view—often associated with Karl Barth—focuses on the “us” in the verse and asserts an analogy between the relational quality of the Godhead and our innate propensity to respond relationally to God and others (especially in terms of the male/female marriage relationship). A third view places Genesis 1:26 within its ancient Near Eastern context, wherein kings were customarily seen as the image of (the) God. This is the “royal representative” view held by most biblical scholars today (who, of course, spend most of their time reading the Bible within its historical contexts).

Catherine McDowell begins The Image of God in an Image Driven Age, though, by carefully arguing the merits of still another perspective based on the parallelisms between Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 5:1-3, which characterizes Seth as being made in the “image” and “like-ness” of Adam. This “kinship” view, which according to McDowell lends validity to the strongest aspects of the other interpretations (that is, it is the cause, or basis, of their effects), provides an illuminating perspective on humanity’s “special status” within Creation and also on the church’s larger vocation of blessing by disseminating God’s ways. Yet in reading McDowell’s account, I could not help wishing that she had clarified the actual difference, if any, between the “all of humanity” that is made in God’s image and the particular subsets of Israel and the Church. In other words, if everyone is made equally in the image of God, does being “chosen” or “born again” somehow translate an individual into some sort of greater likeness? And if there is a difference, is it a matter of kind or of degree? Is it ontological or epistemological? Is it a matter of potentiality versus actuality? Far more than the question of how humans are set apart from (other) animals, this question about whether human beings all reflect God in the same way piques my curiosity, because it spills over into questions of soteriology and ecclesiology.

Fortunately, several essays in this collection make some headway in illuminating these questions by drawing some distinctions between image and likeness that are partially occluded in McDowell’s essay. Craig Blomberg approaches this question in perhaps the most straightforwardly evangelical manner by emphasizing how those of faith are not only set apart from the animals through their capacity for ethical reflection (which is true of all humans), but also that they provide a singular witness to God’s glory through their Christocentric growth in moral action and holiness. Other essayists draw on other traditions to flesh out this distinction in ways that are probably not as familiar to a broader evangelical audience. For example, Daniela Augustine intriguingly fuses Eastern Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism to offer “a theological reflection on the Spirit’s work in humanity’s ontological renewal.” She compellingly argues that “to be fully human is to be Christ-like” (in fact, this is the basic meaning of theosis), and that our growth in Christ-likeness through the Spirit involves us in a perichoretic (or trinitarian) search for the face of God in the other. This means that the imago Dei is especially evident when Christians engage in a radical and sacrificial hospitality. Ian McFarland complements this discussion by focusing on how icons, far from constituting a sort of idol worship, illuminate the nature of Christ’s incarnation by enabling us to see materiality not as a hindrance to spiritual insight, but rather as the locus of God’s imaging. Referring to debates about Christ’s incarnation at the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople, McFarland uses the distinction between nature (what-ness) and person (who-ness) to explain usefully how icons train us to see another person not just as “what,” but as “who,” made in the image of the God-who-became-flesh.

One of the most significant contributions of this volume to imago Dei studies is its inclusion of artists’ perspectives. It might seem obvious that a discourse focused so intently on images would necessarily involve theoretical contributions from those whose sustenance comes from making them, but that has unfortunately not always been the case. This volume refreshingly bucks that trend. Taking up the discussion of icons in a different way from McFarland and Augustine, Matthew Milliner, in his essay “Culture Breaking: In Praise of Iconoclasm,” argues that the beginning of any faithful Christian art-making is a critical deconstruction of those cultural images which have rendered us captive to a type of Babylonian “optocracy.” In fact, he suggests that Christian artists might take up the early twentieth-century avant-garde tradition of Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp in a way that is truly emancipatory. This is an original and inspiring insight, which I hope many artists will follow up on.

But we should not limit art-making to the visual arts. As an English professor, I was especially interested in Christina Bieber Lake’s analysis of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. As someone who has taught this novel in a Christian college, I was fascinated with her rebuttal of scholars who have claimed that McCarthy simply appropriates an aura of religious authority in his language and themes as he goes about constructing purely secular narratives. She convincingly shows that McCarthy’s novel engages in a type of intertextual dialogue with the Book of Job in order to discover the lingering image of God—imaged in the text as the carrying of a flame—in a cold world nearly denuded of humanity and the warmth of social relations.

The volume concludes with important examinations of how the image of God has been warped through the privileging of white-ness (racism), objectification of persons (in sexuality and commodification), and cultural chauvinism (through a “Westernizing” of the image). These chapters could be usefully employed by churches and other Christian institutions to reflect on their own complicity in the contemporary degradation of the imago Dei, just as the book as a whole could be used in Christian colleges to center their curriculums more fully on a valid Christian anthropology. For while the book does not advance a distilled notion of the imago Dei, it does show how the concept is open to a more extensive and richer explication, as well as a more fulsome application. In the end, understanding what it means to be made in the image of God frees us from the desperate—though admittedly tempting—effort to construct ourselves out of the fragments of our own limited and broken imaginations. Such a path has been proven by history to be neither satisfying nor sustainable.

Cite this article
Michael Van Dyke, “The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:3 , 307-309

Michael Van Dyke

Cornerstone University
Michael Van Dyke is a professor of English at Cornerstone University.