Saturday, September 11, 2010

icons as theological treats

Some theologies use words, a hard, exact and careful reflection regarding the best words to use to articulate limited human perceptions of God. In contrast, icons use pictures, not words. This is not a creatively free-flowing task, but a careful task, aiming to faithfully pass on Christian thought.

I’ve found myself tremendously enriched in recent days by two of Rowan Williams books: Ponder These Things: Praying With Icons of the Virgin is a theology of the Incarnation, while The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ, offers a theology of Resurrection. Both utilise Orthodox icons as their starting points. I love this explanation of icons:

the art of making icons is often termed “writing” rather than “painting”; an icon presents the figures and events of the Bible and church history in paint rather than ink.

Icons for me do three things extraordinarily well. They help me think theologically. They help me think visually and in colour. They remind me that theology is about relationship with God.

It’s been a joy to sit with these two books on that explore icon’s theologically by Rowan and realise just how deep these three wells can go. With Rowan’s gifts, the theological depth is extraordinary. The invitation to prayer and contemplation is artful. They have been such a helpful gift for me in the last month or so, reading until a sentence or two captures me, and then using that for prayer and God-focus during the day.

Posted by steve at 07:16 PM


  1. Great reflection Steve. Pleased you’ve discovered and got some real value out of these two gems. Have a good weekend.


    Comment by Paul Fromont — September 11, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  2. thanks paul. dwelling in the light was actually a gift of thanks after my input into the missional leadership class in waikato diocese. i’ve kept returning to it and then stumbled across ponder these things last week,


    Comment by steve — September 11, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

  3. Yeah, well I still think you’re an Orthodox-in-waiting, Steve, and not a Baptist-on-loan.

    Comment by Roscoe Mishmack — September 12, 2010 @ 5:22 am

  4. Cool. That’s a nice connection. The icon and (Williams) commentary that really connects for me is “The Virgin of the Sign: The Orans” in “Ponder These Things”. And, “The Resurrection” in “The Dwelling of the Light”. The beautifully bound and presented little books too – real gems!

    Comment by Paul Fromont — September 12, 2010 @ 6:41 am

  5. Time will tell Roscoe/Ross. I somehow don’t think my liturgical creativity is quite de rigeur for the Orthodox. 🙂


    Comment by steve — September 12, 2010 @ 6:53 am

  6. Things can change. You might even get to appreciate the richness that lies in the combinations and permutations of two thousand years of liturgical tradition. Some of the wheels have already been invented – and tested, developed and refined over generations of use.

    Comment by Roscoe Mishmack — September 12, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  7. And exactly the point of this blog post surely, in which I express an appreciation of the richness of a number of traditions – Anglican, Orthodox.

    Such is the DJ method, sampling from the richness of the past.

    Tradition. Now is it
    a) the unchanging past which demands no change in us?
    b) the diverse weaves of God’s people always adapting to changing context?
    c) that which must be despised in order for a new generation to move on?

    at some point I must post what I said to the various heads of churches here in south Australia last week about the relationship between tradition and mission,


    Comment by steve — September 12, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  8. I don’t doubt that you do appreciate the traditions that you borrow from in your services, Steve. But I venture to suggest it’s a different sort of appreciation from that of the Orthodox. According to Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, Orthodox tradition means “the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons – in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages.” [from ‘The Orthodox Church’, p196 in the Penguin edition.] The combinations and permutations themselves are determined by the interweaving of the lectionary, the Church year, the saints, and the eight tones. I only have a superficial, outsider’s understanding of what this means and sometimes I regret that I didn’t become a part of it when I had the chance. But I did get a glimpse of what the icons really mean early one morning as the iconostasis gradually became visible in the dawn light.

    Anyway, this is a bit long for a blog, isn’t it? I don’t buy any of your three definitions of tradition. For me tradition is simply whatever is handed down or, more specifically, delivered from one generation to the next. What we do with it is a matter for each of us as individuals. I hope you believe me when I say I’m not disrespecting your DJ approach – it’s just that my own preference is for an approach that keeps the traditions intact and tries to examine our contemporary experience in their light, rather than the other way round.

    Comment by Roscoe Mishmack — September 12, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

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