Aniconic Stories and Reading the Bible

By Kelly Sikkema on Flickr

Back since before we produced PodBible 1 I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World.

Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced).

Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture.

That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!

Now something that seems, at first brush, unrelated. I record (among other things) readings of children’s stories. Recently different people, referencing different ages of child, have mentioned that the Beatrix Potter stories are preferred over Winnie-the-Pooh. The reason given is that Potter’s are illustrated and so the child has a video to watch, while Pooh is just audio. This makes a priori sense since children get to see so much video today, and recent children’s books are usually illustrated with copious colour images, where a generation ago only a few line drawings often sufficed.

For me, this recognition was confirmed by the experience of reading Paddington Bear to my grandson. At 5 and a bit, he is a good reader, enjoys reading and also loves having stories read to him. He had watched several episodes of a video version of Paddington (not true video but like my Beatrix Potter produced zooming and panning over simple colour images). He was “getting”  the humour and chuckling away. So, later that day I got out the copy of a Paddington omnibus edition we used to read to our children. I was only a couple of pages into the first story, when he complained: “Where are the pictures?” I showed him the few line drawings, and he chose another book to have read.

The rising generations2 are simply less able to enjoy aniconic stories.

We have a second problem to compound the first: We are becoming less interested in, and even less able to ‘read’ aniconic stories.

There have been attempts to address this. As well as the ‘biblical’ blockbusters, which attempt to ‘retell’ the Bible stories as engaging cinema, people have produced visual Bibles (or at least episodes or whole books from the Bible). Some are extremely expensive and use the full range of the actor’s and videographer’s crafts (notable among these are the Jesus Film 3 and the project known as The Visual Bible).4 Distant Shores Open Bible Stories has gone the opposite route and used a crowd-sourced open and free approach.

There is however a significant issue with such visualisations, the biblical text is inherently aniconic, not only is the text itself consistently unimaged (at least for the first many centuries of its transmission) but beyond that we have very few indeed pictures of its characters from their own lifetimes. Most of those are foreigners on the periphery of the story, none of the major characters was5 imaged in from life.

If the ‘visual Bible’ approach is fraught with theological and practical difficulties, are there other approaches to cope with these issues?
Even if small children are more resistant to stories without pictures, most become capable of attending to such stories, and many learn to love them. Reading the Bible aloud in church is more, and not less, vital than it was in less visual times.

Children seem more able to concentrate in the absence of images when other stimuli are reduced (e.g. listening to stories through earphones on car journeys or to an adult reading in a darkened room). Perhaps, in church, we could dim the lights for the reading of Scripture!

This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!

  1. The idea for PodBible was stimulated by a desire to help a generation who read little, but listened to MP3s a lot, to “read” the Bible. []
  2. Remember this process did not begin with ubiquitous video on phones, but broadcast video on TV, or even earlier with film, photography and printing advances making images cheaper and very much more widespread, already a century ago before my father’s birth! []
  3. Not quite a visual Bible, but closely based on Luke’s gospel. []
  4. Which perhaps in ways not unrelated to the amounts of money involved has been mired in controversy and strife. []
  5. So far as we know. []

CS Lewis on Christian Morality

Richard Beck pulled out this (timely?) quote from Mere Christianity

Finally, though I have had to speak at some length about sex, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that the centre of Christian morality is not here. If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.

–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Sometimes it takes an “outsider”…

Please note the scare quotes, Richard Beck is not an outsider, in church he is a committed leader, in the blogsphere he is a powerful voice. Yet, the debate about gay marriage has been framed and is largely conducted in the light of stances taken by professional biblical scholars, systematic theologians, ethicists and pastors. Richard is a psychologist, but one with a fine and catholic understanding of the Bible and christian tradition. As a psychologist one of the striking features of his theological writing is how he keeps rooting it in experience.

With that introduction (though I have been linking to Beck since 2006), here’s why you should read him today in The Icons of God in Marriage: Nature and Election he reframes the debate about gay marriage in ways that I find interesting noting what each “side” does to talk of the image of God in marriage. I had not thought about it that way, and I think the thought is worth more time for reflection.

Aronofsky’s “Noah”

Later than most of the (vaguely) interested public1  I finally watched “Noah” on one of the flights the other day.

I won’t comment on the story, or its relationship with Scripture, other have done that well. Nor will I offer erudite comments on the legend of the watchers – I’m not competent. I want to focus on ideology. Again even within this category, I won’t comment on the radical “green” claim that humanity is a blight upon creation, others have. I’ll focus on the blatant misandry. Consistently in this film the men are against life, whether “goodies” or “baddies” those who kill or seek to kill are male. Indeed when humanity’s anti-file tendencies are in view we are named “Man”. By contrast the women consistently seek to preserve life.

I despise such blatant and crude stereotyping.

  1. Only vaguely because I have little interest in “biblical” films, which almost always spoil fine literature making it clumsy film, and on the whole I feel SciFi (the genre descriptor which seems best to fit this film) also works better as text than film. []

A first reading of: “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”


Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA – W.H. Shumard family, circa 1955

A few days ago the Vatican published a working paper “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization“. This paper results from international consultations stemming from Pope Francis’ convocation of an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to treat the topic: The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The discussion document reflects the current catholic (and Catholic) concerns over pastoral issues like increasing frequency of cohabitation, blended families, divorce and remarriage, gay marriage… The document has been welcomed not least because of its desire to base the discussion on Scripture and in a concern for mission. Despite the perception of Pope Francis (who in a sense commissioned the document) as a radical theologian my first impression of the document (after sharing in the two reasons for welcoming it mentioned above) is sadness that it is not “radical” – that is it fails to return to reexamine the biblical roots of Christian teaching about family.

Indeed the section on “God’s Plan for Marriage and the Family” sadly fails to ask what the Scriptures teach about “family” but rather presumes an answer to that question by beginning and basing everything on marriage. Whilst biblical teaching about marriage is undoubtedly (as the document understands) founded on Genesis 2, that is not true for biblical teaching about family. The assumption that marriage + children produced by that marriage = family is a modern Western assumption that was not shared by the authors of Scripture.

As I explained briefly in my paper for the NZ Christian Network (in 2006 ) “Families in the Bible” [No longer available there, but can be accessed here] there is no word or expression in either biblical Hebrew or Greek for the nuclear family. Indeed the words and phrases which get translated “family” in both Testaments refer to something broader (in the present including a wider range of relatives, uncles, aunts, cousins etc. not just mother, father and their children) and deeper (including ancestors and perhaps descendants e.g. “David’s family”). The exercise of looking for the word “family” in English Bibles, and then examining the Hebrew and Greek expressions thus translated, makes it abundantly clear that the writers of Scripture had no conception of (or at least had no interest in talking about)  nuclear families. When Scripture talks about family it is always the extended family that is in view. Any talk of nuclear families is a modern overlay on the Bible.

Beyond that, once we examine the families that the Bible actually describes, we soon discover that they are not merely extended, they are messy. Blended families are not a new phenomenon, just look at the Patriarchs.

Going beyond this Scripture does not anywhere present an image of an ideal family as an exemplar to copy, indeed I suspect all the families in the Bible are presented as broken (composing as they do a broken sinful world). On the other hand, it does present a series of virtues which ought to be shown in family life. The centre and heart of this cluster of virtues is hesed that faithful loving loyalty that God shows to us and which is also modeled by Ruth, Boaz, Tamar and other biblical heroes of the family.

By thus starting from the “modern world”, understood to mean the Westernised world, and importing its ideas onto Scripture while silencing Scripture’s own teaching, this discussion document does a disservice to the catholic (in the sense of “everywhere”) Church. By this rejection of Scripture it risks merely reinforcing the individualistic “modern” Western tendencies that it somewhat timidly criticises.

New Criticism

Jonathan Robinson has some as yet unbaked1 thoughts on the hidden presence of children in gospel narratives.

As someone who still remembers being a child (it always surprises me how many people seem to turn off those memories, or at least fail to use them to generate empathy) I like the way he’s thinking. It seems to me he opens up a whole new discipline of biblical criticism. We’ve had Feminist, Womanist, Black, African, Asian… Criticism, how about some serious Child Criticism?

Now, it may be that someone has already published on this, if they have please give me details!

  1. He calls them half-baked, but I think that’s unduly rude []

Grace, poverty and relationships

Paul Windsor had a fine post a few days ago, on living alongside the poor which should be required reading for anyone who will be living, moving or having their being where others are poor. This means all of us, unless we hermetically seal ourselves away and shut off the Internet.

Then this morning I read Richard Beck’s Widows and Orphans: On Evolution, Election and Love. Two posts that each gain depth from being read together :) If you have read one but not the other, please do read it now. If you have read neither, you have a double treat in store and plenty of thinking to do!

Paul is a Kiwi Evangelical living in India, who grew up as a MK in India, and trying to negotiate how to live, move and have his being in a place where the poor (often the extremely poor) are always with him. Richard is a psychologist who thinks deeply and creatively about Christian faith and life. Both will teach you much, and both will make you think and pray.

Bill Loader’s work on sexuality

The capstone volume that completes Bill Loader’s previous five volumes on sex and sexuality in the the world of early Christianity is announced. Among other things this book seeks to make his scholarly and full treatment in the previous five volumes more accessible to non-specialist readers. This is an important work, and if you are concerned in any way in discussions of sex and sexuality in the churches today you need it!


Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature

Two items on sex, sexuality and Sin

Two items relating to (mainly male, but see below) sexuality have been appearing on my Facebook feed. Together they have prompted this reflection, even if it should confirm Netguardian in their decision to filter this blog.1

The first concerns a man who during,  a “mission” to free children and women from enforced prostitution2 committed the sin of adultery. This is the  article Undercover investigator’s harrowing story. The issue being discussed was whether like Hayden Donnell (the author of the piece) we should see the man as a hero, or as a villain. Basically and crudely do we focus on his sin which (the story implies) wrecked his family, or on the children and women his actions save from degradation and suffering.

  The other was a video,  little discussed, “shared” and sometimes “liked” but not discussed:

Yet does this video not raise more and more practical questions?

It seems to me that the research Jessica Rey cites (which I have not seen and am taking her word for, unless you know differently) describes the male human as sinful (i.e. subject to the power of Sin, in this particular case leading, if not effectively resisted, to sexual sins)3  As many commentators on the “undercover investigator” article noted sex is indeed a besetting sin of (many or most, at least) male humans. The video also implies, however, that there may be a complementary female besetting sin, of seeking to arouse male lust. This notion is of course abhorrent to many/most women: Can’t you men control yourselves?!

The short answer is we can, and some of us (so far) have, but your actions and the general behaviour our society finds acceptable do not make it easy. Cheap, ubiquitous, multimedia communications exacerbate this problem. We have this problem because our society refuses to recognise that humans are sinful, inclined towards wrong. To cling to the, demonstrably false, notion that humans are ‘naturally’ good does us all a disservice. It contributes to the sexual slavery of women and even children, and also to the different (and yes, less severe and self-inflicted) sexual slavery of (many) men. 4

  1. A friend told me yesterday that he was unable to access the posts below as Netguardian perceived it as falling in the category: “Category: Pornography
    Description: Sites that portray sexual acts, activity, nudity, toys, stories/writings, beastiality, fetishes, videos, etc.”

    This has been appealed and hopefully this post will not confirm their view that my blog should be filtered.

    NB: I am not complaining about Netguardian, such filter services are useful for reasons that the post above should make quite clear. []

  2. By gathering evidence to present to the authorities. []
  3. NB. I distinguish here, ‘Sin’ using an initial capital, as the power which Paul says is at work in us undermining our best intentions and releasing our worst, see e.g. Rom 7, and ‘sin’ some particular wrong act which hurts us and/or others. []
  4. This post Generation Porn was also in my feed, yesterday. []

Mothers’ Day, a retrospect

Perhaps it’s because I recently did a series of guest posts summarising the ideas from my book about God as mother (I also did podcast versions of the summaries) or perhaps there really have been more voices raised this year putting the case against having a “mothers’ day”. Either way, the mothers’ day scrooges make at least two very powerful cases. Both are emotionally charged, so I have waited till a couple of days after to write this post.

Let me first summarise how I hear the cases against (I do not want to be thought to be picking an order, so I’ll start with the first that crossed my eyes and ears this year):

Many women either do not have children, or have lost children. For them “mothers’ day” is an annual reminder of their pain, rubbing salt into their wounds. This is a real and powerful argument, which (of course) applies almost equally to fathers’ day.1 The argument is a crushing indictment of the rush to profit from this day at the expense of these sisters. It is also a sharp and accurate critique of the way “mothers’ day” is treated in many (until recently most) churches – at the least, we should not celebrate and pray for mothers without recognising and praying for the pain of many non-mothers.

Many people have/had bad mothers. Somehow because our societal expectations of mothers are higher (men are expected to neglect their children “because of their jobs” and we turn a less than sharp eye to the way some men father children and then relinquish their responsibilities to love and care for their offspring,2  the experience of a bad mother hurts at least as deeply and is perhaps more often hidden than that of a bad father. Mothers’ day is for them also a painful reminder.

And yet, precisely because parenting arouses such deep hurt or sense of blessing,  it is important. Children need good loving adult care. In a society which has turned its back resolutely, if with blind stupidity, to the “it takes a village to raise a child” approach3 mothers and fathers (and the grandmothers and grandfathers who often share or assume the role in a broken world)4 whether biological or adoptive, or even honorary need celebrating and supporting.

Perhaps, instead of mothers’ day and fathers’ day we could have a few childrens’ days each year, when everyone celebrates those who care(d) for them as children, and also those who are currently caring for children. A day when instead of being exclusive we include. When parents gift childless people  with the pleasure of a picnic and a play in the park with the children (or whatever) and children enjoy the gift of time (and perhaps, to keep the supermarket owners from starvation, chocolate or toys) from honorary aunties and uncles, and we all celebrate the wonder and joy of childhood. We could also spend some of the money that is currently lavished on cards and presents to support the organisations that provide this care for children who are less parentally gifted.

  1. I would not have written “almost” because, for childless men with strong parental feelings, the “almost” seems an insult to their pain, yet I recognise that such strong parental feelings are, sadly, less common in men than women in our society. []
  2. Again, I know this IS a generalisation, there are also men denied the chance to fully fulfill their role because of the way our courts privilege the mother’s “claim”. []
  3. The proverb is African, but the practice was once simply human. []
  4. It is striking how many grandparents we know who are primary or very significant caregivers for small children. []