CGG Weekly, January 2, 2009

"If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world."
Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the past month, motorists around the United States have undoubtedly noticed roadside depictions of the nativity scene of Jesus Christ. Whether in front of a church or in the neighbor's yard, nativity scenes have been everywhere. As members of God's church know, the details of this scene are remarkably inaccurate, starting with the fact that Christ's birth did not occur in the winter! Though the Bible clearly disproves such misconceptions, they nevertheless persist.

A major reason why mainstream Christians continue to misrepresent the nativity scene exemplifies the image-based nature of mainstream Christianity as opposed to the text-based truths of God's Word. The disconnect between such images and the text of the Bible illustrates the effect of breaking the second commandment.

More common than the nativity scene in mainstream Christian worship is the depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Both images break the second commandment recorded in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8: "You shall not make any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." God clearly bans the use of any image in the worship of Him. The only physical medium in which God has chosen to reveal Himself to us is language, specifically His Word.

A fundamental difference exists between images and language, and by understanding the difference, we can understand the second commandment's importance to us. The difference lies in the way we understand and mentally process images in contrast to language. Images convey their meaning through physical and concrete objects with which we interact. In contrast, language conveys meaning abstractly, requiring us to understand even what we may have never experienced.

To better demonstrate this difference, consider two different systems of writing: pictographic and ideographic. Pictographic writing systems are the earliest currently known, with the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs being a well-known example. The meaning of a pictographic word is precisely what it depicts. For example, if an Egyptian wanted to write about the sun in the sky, he would draw an image of the sun, referring only to the fiery star in the sky.

Ideographic writing developed out of pictographic writing. Ideograms are like pictograms yet not as detailed in their depiction as a pictogram. A pictogram of the sun may include sunrays and a ring of spikes, while an ideogram may just be a circle. As a result, the ideogram of the sun is less tied to the physical object of the sun and more with its abstract characteristics, such as the heat it produces or light it emanates. Eventually, ideograms lost so much of their original details that they became letters such as we use today.

This development in language demonstrates the difference in image and language. A pictographic writer could draw images only of what he had experienced or what he had seen. When a person sees an image, he must first understand exactly what the image is of, then he has to deduce what is not in the image. Because of this, images convey meaning primarily through concrete objects—a house, for instance. Any non-physical attribute of the meaning—for example, domesticity—must be deduced.

In ideographic writing, the concrete details are lost, loosening the meaning from any physical object, and requiring the reader to understand the word abstractly. Language functions in this way. The words on a page do not look in any way similar to what they mean; the reader has to know the definition and then connect the isolated word to its surrounding words to grasp the thought that the group of words conveys. Language, unlike images, cannot only describe any object, such as different houses, but also any attribute or ability that object may have.

Returning to the nativity scene, how does reading about the nativity scene instead of looking at a representation of it affect our understanding? If someone were unfamiliar with the Bible, what would he learn from seeing only a representation or reading only the text? From the representations, all he could learn about the birth of Jesus Christ is that He was born in a barn to a man and woman while visited by three guests. The representation leaves out what the text considers more important: that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God; that He was not fathered by Joseph but by God the Father through Mary, a virgin; that He was the Messiah prophesied about by the prophets, etc.

The danger inherent in images is that they reduce any abstract idea or non-physical thing to what we understand through our senses. Just as a nativity scene reduces Jesus to a mere infant instead of the divine Son of God, crucifixes reduce Him to a suffering, dying man instead of the propitiation of our sins who now lives so that we can have eternal life. Both images reduce the spiritual significance of the events to a purely physical level.

A person can never understand God through an image or representation, for to make an image of God is to reduce Him to physical attributes we can sense. God describes in Isaiah 55:9 just how disparate He is from us. God's love, mercy, power, and His many other attributes cannot be depicted through images. If we attempt to do so, we reduce God to the level of man, making the representation not of the true God, but of a manmade god, an idol. When we reduce God to a physical image that we can understand without the aid of God's Spirit, we actually raise ourselves above God and turn Him into a god conceived from our own physical sensations. He becomes only what we have seen, felt, smelled, heard, or tasted.

The world may consider their nativity scenes and crucifixes as harmless aids to their worship of God, but in their arrogance, they have ignored the second commandment. Through images, the world has reduced God and His power to their own level. Diminishing God removes our understanding of and respect for His authority. As called sons and daughters of God in the body of Christ, it is important to remember how important the second commandment is, lest we try to conceive of God physically and reduce and diminish Him in our own minds.