The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism
The following article was originally published in Ikon, Vol 1, No 1, Winter 1969. I am republishing it in this blog. Readers should remember that it is over 40 years old. See the end of the article for explanatory notes
The most fundamental division between Christians has been that between East and West. The differences between churches of the West, ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’ and even ‘Pentecostal’ have been almost insignificant by comparison.
The Reformation has been seen as one of the most formative experiences of Christians in Western Europe. It changed not only the Protestant churches, but in the Counter Reformation the Roman Catholic Church experienced a similar process. But the Reformation took place in the context of social and economic changes in Europe, and one factor that had great influence on the Western churches was the invention of printing.
Marshall Mcluhan, one-time Professor of Literature of the University of Toronto, has made a study of the effects of different communications media on society. Before the Renaissance, he claims, the culture of Europe was primarily aural. Communication was through the ear rather than the eye. Written documents were in manuscript and could reach wider audiences only by being read aloud in public. The Christian art of both East and West was similar in pattern and style. Both East and West used ikons – generally in mosaic – to proclaim the Christian gospel. The mosaic ikons in 13th century Italian churches do not differ markedly from those in the Byzantine churches in Greece and Asia Minor. The pictures were standardised, and followed a set pattern. Later, when in the Eastern Churches the ikons came to be painted on wood, the style changed to accommodate the new medium, but the theology remained basically the same.
The West, however, moved from an ear culture to an eye culture. The ear has no ‘point of view’ – sounds come from all directions and are accepted as an inclusive environment, in which several things happen at once. The eye, however, does have a ‘point of view’. Western art came to emphasise perspective, which made the beholder the point of reference for the picture. This was also true in architecture. As Mcluhan puts it, the watchword of the Renaissance was ‘a piazza for everything and everything in its piazza’.
The invention of printing played an important part in extending the new visual stress in the West. Printed books meant that more people could have copies, more people could learn to read. The portable book could be read in privacy and isolation from others. Reading became a private, individual activity rather than the public, communal one of the manuscript culture. The private, fixed point of view became possible, and literacy conferred the power of detachment, non-involvement. The Protestant idea of ‘private interpretation of the scriptures’ presupposes a visually-oriented culture. In the Eastern churches the Scriptures are still read in public, and the ikons in the churches bring the heard word to life. The liturgy is a communal public action. In Protestant churches the liturgy loses its meaning. Public worship is based on the word. Instruction becomes more important than participation. People go to church, not so much to participate in the worship of the body of Christ, as to be instructed, edified, uplifted. In the Roman Catholic Church a similar process follows, but it is not quite so obvious. The old liturgical forms remain, but they take on a radically different meaning. Again the individual, with his private point of view, becomes the centre. The worship as a communal action disappears, and is replaced by private devotion. ‘I’ make ‘my’ communion.
The recent objection to A message to the people of South Africa by the Baptists reflects this cultural background.i The doctrine of individual, personal salvation, which, the Baptists claimed, the Message ignored in favour of a more social conception of salvation, only appeared at the Reformation. It could not have arisen before the invention of printing, when the reading of scripture became a private rather than a public activity. Jesus Christ ‘my’ personal Saviour is not a Biblical concept. In the Bible, Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world.
In South Africa, most of the evangelisation was done by literate Christians from Western Europe. They found they had to teach people to read before they could proclaim the Gospel to them. But the Africans had no written language – they lived in a tribal, aural culture. This has led to many difficulties in the churches, and the tension between these two cultures has certainly influenced the formation of Zionist Churches, which are trying, among other things, to express Christianity in a form that has meaning for people living in an aural culture.
Many of these problems might not have arisen if Southern Africa had been evangelised by the Eastern churches. The oldest African churches – those of Egypt and Ethiopia – have retained the Eastern pattern. In Eastern churches, literacy is not a prerequisite for hearing the gospel. Indeed, many of the clergy are barely literate. The Gospel is communicated by participation in a Christian community. And this is the only way in which the Gospel can really be communicated. Jesus did not leave a book of teachings – he left no writings at all – only a community filled with the Holy Spirit.
The Eastern Orthodox Christians, when they enter a church building, first kiss the ikons. To the Western, literate Christian, this seems like superstition and idolatry. But idolatry is more of a Western phenomenon. The Western church has its images – statues, which are often very lifelike. Candles are lit in front of them, and personal devotion is paid to them. A statue is three-dimensional; it is a thing in itself. You can walk around it, and it is still there. The ikons of the Eastern churches are two-dimensional. They are not there to draw attention to themselves, but to point to something beyond themselves. They are windows rather than pictures. So if I enter an Orthodox Church at Easter, I might kiss the ikon of the resurrection, and I do this to greet the risen Christ. I might light a candle in front of the ikon for the same purpose. But it is not enough just to light a candle in front of the ikon or to kiss the ikon. So I must light a candle in front of my brother who stands next to me. On Easter morning the whole congregation kisses the priest, and they Exchange the Easter greeting: ‘Christ is risen: He is risen indeed’. They kiss the ikons and the book of the Gospel and they also kiss each other, exchanging the same greeting. They kiss the ikons of the saints too, for they are also part of the congregation.ii The Eucharist looks forward to the Messianic Banquet in the New Jerusalem – when all the dead have been raised, when the final victory over evil had been won, and the new creation is consummated.
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order – Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Now according to Mcluhan the age of literacy, which has so moulded the Western churches and accentuated their schism with the East, is ending. And it is the advent of electric technology that has killed it. Electric light, the telephone, radio and television have made communication global and all embracing. News of events on the other side of the world reach us at the same time as news from the other side of town. Electric technology is turning the world into a global village. Through a medium such as television one can participate in events as much as, if not more than, one could if actually present. The same event might be seen through three, four or five differently-placed cameras – and so the individual point of view is abolished. Sound radio is, paradoxically, more ‘visual’ and akin to the printed word than television. Radio is the medium for the monologue, the instructive sermon. With the advent of television the whole concept of church broadcasting had to be altered. For radio, the printed script is adequate – the Protestant type of service, with its emphasis on the word is made for radio. On television this appears boring and static. A liturgical service, with its greater sense of participation and involvement is more suitable. With this type of communication, literacy becomes more important. We are moving into an age of symbolism, an age of neo-tribalism. A new generation is appearing whose life is built on mythical and symbolical involvement. This new generation will communicate less through the rationalist perspective of literate culture and more and more through myth and symbol.
Modern theology is at present dominated by the demythologisers, and the demythologisers are the last fling of a literate era – the culmination of the Protestant refusal to understand things in terms other than language. These bourgeois theologians of the age of literacy tell us that ‘modern man’ can no longer accept concepts like incarnation and resurrection and that we must demythologise the account of the resurrection of Jesus. But despite the modern, or rather not quite modern theologians, modern man finds it only to easy to believe in resurrection – and if they are told that they can no longer believe that Jesus rose from the dead, they will nevertheless proclaim that ‘Che Guevara lives!’, ‘Camilo Torres is not dead!’, and ‘Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years!’
Here in South Africa we are still clinging to the age of print. Verkramp politicians have sworn that we will not have television. We still cling to sound radio – a medium that reached its zenith with Hitler and Mussolini. Social researchers must find South Africa a fascinating field for study, a living fossil in a new world shaped by a new medium of communication.
Whether we like it or not we are moving into this new age, but it is an age of opportunity. It is an age when myth and symbol can easily be understood, and when the pre-literate myths and symbols of Christianity can once again be understood. And new myths and symbols can be found to express the Gospel in the new ikonic age. In every age the Church is to be the ikon of the New Jerusalem, the new human community of a world set free from sin and evil, injustice and oppression.
As I noted at the beginning, I wrote this article in 1969, when I was 28 years old. Quite a lot of things have changed since I wrote it, including me, and so if I were writing it today, I would not write it in the same way, though I generally stand by what I wrote back then. So I have written these notes to explain how some of the changes of the last 40 years might have affected what I wrote then.
One thing I would have added were I writing it now would be the ikon of Pentecost, which illustrates some of the differences. I noted that in Western Renaissance and post-Renaissance art there was an emphasis on perspective, stressing the single, individual point of view. The Orthodox ikon of Pentecost, on the other hand shows multiple perspectives. It does not show what we would have seen had we been there, but rather what most people did not see. It shows the apostles sitting in a semi-circle, receiving or waiting to receive the Holy Spirit.
The semicircle is incomplete. It shows people who were almost certainly not present on the occasion — St Luke holding the scroll of his gospel, which had not been written yet. St Paul, who was to be a persecutor of the church before he joined the circle. And because it is not a closed circle, but an open semicircle, the viewer is part of it, the circle of the apostles extends to embrace the church in which the ikon is.
In the centre of the floor is a window, and while the floor is horizontal, the window is vertical, in a dual perspective. It shows an old and weary king, Cosmos, representing the world. Like the stable in C.S. Lewis’s book The last battle the inside of the upper room is bigger than the outside, because it contains the whole world. The apostles are sent into all the world, not out to all the world. And as we look at it, we see Cosmos as our own reflection in a mirror — we are part of that old and weary world, waiting for the good news of liberation, and we are also part of the circle of the apostles, charged to take the good news into all the world. The ikon therefore has a great deal to tell us about mission.
Here are some of the other differences, and some explanations of some of them, and some background information.
- I was moved to republish this old article after reading an article in Matt Stone’s blog “Joureys in between”, called Tribalization and Cultural Identity. Reading Matt’s article made me realise that many concerns now being expressed in emerging church circles were similar to those we had back in the 1960s.
- One of the changes in me since I wrote the article is that when I wrote it I was an Anglican, and I am now a member of the Orthodox Church, for reasons that should be clear from what I wrote in the article. I wrote the article for the first issue of Ikon, an “underground” Christian magazine started by me and some friends. Ikon ceased publication in 1972 when all the editors had been banned by the South African government.
- In 1968 I returned from England, where I had studied at the University of Durham. An experimental drama festival was held at Durham, with participants from all over the UK, and from some of them I learnt about the works of Marshall McLuhan, such as The medium is the massage, Understanding media, and The Gutenberg galaxy. Not everything that McLuhan wrote about media was true or useful, but some of it was, and it helped me to appreciate some of the differences between Orthodox and Western Christianity.
- In 1968 I attended a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students at the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Study Centre in Bossey, Switzerland, ending with Holy Week and Pascha at St Sergius in Paris. It sparked an interest in Orthodox theology that grew over the years until I joined the Orthodox Church.
- We now have words to describe what I wrote about then. What McLuhan called “preliterate” would now be called “premodern”, and much of what I thought would subsequently happen, which I called “neotribalism”, is now called “postmodernity”. But back then we did not have those words.
- The death of literacy did not occur. Back in the 1960s the idea of the personal computer was quite remote. McLuhan, with his talk of the “global village” foresaw globalisation, and that it would also be both global and tribal. Computer communications have spread rapidly over the last 20 years, and people who would never had typed their own letters have learned to do so. E-mail, computer discussion forums and SMS have meant that more people are using written communication than ever before.
- In his article Matt Stone also raises questions about the relation between tribalisation and globalisation, which are not really dealt with in the article above. I hope to return to them in a later blog posting.
- For more background, and for a tracing of developments from the 1960s to the present, see my article on Christianity, paganism and literature