Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story, “A Christmas Memory,” is a favorite because of the portrait he paints of his great aunt Sook who raised him. I had a great aunt Sook, who, thankfully, did not raise me. His aunt Sook was kindly, wise, and caring towards everyone. My aunt Sook lived up in the hills in a tar paper shack with a one-eyed Pekingese dog, whose name was “Dog.” She kept Dog tethered to a chenille davenport with eight feet of tow chain. The tethering was superfluous because a Pekingese dog attached to eight feet of tow chain isn’t going anywhere.
Capote’s aunt Sook is a favorite because she reminds me of so many older folks among whom I was raised. She says things like “yonderways,” and “blaze like a Baptist window,” and she is very concerned about “not taking His name in vain.” The folks who raised me were concerned about that too. Not only could one never use the names of the Deity in a frivolous manner, but words like “gosh,” and “I swear” were forbidden as well (my grandma would go as far as to say “I Swan” …whatever that means).
This was because the folks who raised me took seriously the third commandment, “You shall not take the Name of Yahweh your God in vain” (Exodus 20.7). It was a matter of great respect for them, and although the commandment is not repeated in the New Testament, they believed the passages concerning blasphemy (Colossians 3.8, I Timothy 1.13, I Timothy 6.1 among others) communicate that God’s name must be respected still – so also God’s image.
The grown-ups who taught my Sunday school classes were also clear on that subject. Images of God and Jesus should be illustrative if used at all. The second command makes clear that idols of any sort are forbidden (Exodus 20.4-5). The King James Version uses the phrase “graven image” instead of “idol” which I prefer since the Hebrew word pesel, used in the text, means something fashioned by hand. Those Christian adults who raised me believed that law remains in force as well, violating the same New Testament passages mentioned above.
The first Christians held similar beliefs. For at least the first three centuries of Church history Christians would not paint, carve, or chisel an image of God or Jesus. Nowadays we seem to lack the same respect – or any respect. Not only do we freely use images of Jesus in illustrations and as advertising, we use disrespectful images. I cringe every year when the flyers for VBS material begin to arrive. Accompanying their Madison Avenue titles (“Hiking with Jesus up Sonshine Mountain,” “Surfin’ with Jesus on Sonshine Beach”) is the artwork portraying Jesus surfing, or rock-climbing – and for some reason Jesus always looks like the eighth dwarf.
But I have a different use of His image in mind as I write these lines. It seems folks are sharing a series of images of Jesus hovering around our president like a Divine bodyguard, eager to give His imprimatur to anything the president decides to do next. I have seen a few of these and I find them more than offensive. I find them blasphemous. I am not on Facebook, and so in my chosen and blissful ignorance I don’t know if any of you have shared such images, but if you have, and are – stop it. Stop It.
This last divisive election has left open wounds in our country, our culture and our congregations. Thoughtful, prayerful, reasonable people could easily find either (or both) of the major party candidates objectionable. To endorse either with the graven image of Jesus is disrespectful to those of differing opinions, and disrespectful of Jesus Himself. My strongly held opinion is that such artwork violates the Second and Third commandments, and is blasphemy.
Maybe we differ on this point, but I think we all must agree that trading such images, and engaging in the angry political exchanges they prompt, violates this simply stated command:
Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. (Romans 15.2)