Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Pentecostals, Emergent, Anabaptists and Icons

Once again I will take a moment to dig into the interesting interaction between the Emergent conversation, and Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity.

Mysticism is a serious pursuit among many Emergent thinkers. Ancient practices such as lectio divina, and the ritual worship art of icons are gaining popularity among Emergent Evangelicals whose traditions would at one time have avoided such interests, if not have rejected them altogether. This particular element of mysticism, and its resurgence among Evangelical Emergent thinkers is a piece of the puzzle in the Pentecostal/Emergent interaction which has a strangely twisted plot to it.

Today's Evangelicals, and more specifically Pentecostals have a kinship to the Anabaptists of old with their concern over the issue of icons. In respect for the 2nd commandment, using images as a means of creating a touch point for worship is viewed as idolatrous by many people from Pentecostal traditions. Yet, the Emergent conversation has been asking us to consider ancient mysticism. Along with the emergence of a response to postmodern culture and thought comes this renewal of medieval Christian mysticism, and with it a new appreciation for the purpose of the art of icons with their intellectual, and emotional attachment to prayer and worship.

Orthodox theology allows for an "eikon" as a representation of deity, which becomes a point of reference for access to the graces of heaven. As the Mass is more than a mere representation of the blood and body of the Lord in Orthodox and Catholic traditions, so the icon is more than a representation. It becomes an entrance into the presence of Heaven for prayer, and worship. Thus the Orthodox believer may not worship an icon, but does not struggle with the "veneration" of the icon, even to the point of kissing it.

Contrarily, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are unadorned, and simple. No icons except that of the cross (usually empty and without the body of Christ) fill the spaces of worship. The place of worship is often deemphasized as a holy location, and the true "eikon" is believed to be the followers themselves who are God's image giving us a deeper glimpse into the redemptive story, and the character of God. Like the medieval Anabaptists, Pentecostal tradition has simplified worship to a direct relationship with no need for mediatorial help apart from that of Christ Himself. Placing anything between the believer and Jesus is viewed as a hindrance, and potentially a false "eikon" or an idol.

Consequently the Emergent conversation's movement toward medieval mysticism through such elements as icons may easily be seen by many Pentecostals as a step toward idolatry. I believe the Emergent conversation correctly asks us to consider evaluating iconography in the Orthodox traditions in a new light. It is not acceptable to judge the prayerfulness of those who utilize icons without considering the actions of the inner life - the thought process, and the theology placed behind the use of icons. It is possible for one person to utilize an icon as a teaching tool, and a reminder of the purposes of Heaven illustrated by the art of icons; and another person might actually venerate an icon to the point of idolatry.

Due to humanity's movement toward idolatry, the early Anabaptists who were drawn to simplicity must be honored for their insistence upon purging their lives from idolatrous activities. Their desire to purge the church of idolatry remains a core value of many Christian traditions. Though the idols change from generation to generation, the necessity for iconoclasts who challenge our idolatries does not.

It is in this clash of systems, the Orthodox worshiper, and the iconoclast, that we find the Emergent/Pentecostal dialogue walking the tightrope of Christian faith.

Yet the challenge of tightrope walking is as difficult for the Emergent thinker who challenges Pentecostal Emergents, as it is for the challenged Pentecostal. The day in which we live Pentecostal traditions have become the laughingstock of the religious world. Our TV preachers are the most ostentatious. Because of the early growth of the movement among the poor and uneducated, leadership has been high on passion and low in learning - much like the early days of Christianity itself. Yet the insistence upon developing an unmediated personal relationship with God marked by passion, and bypassing the human intellect is a story of mysticism which has traveled down the halls of our faith. Quakers, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Congregationalists sit in relatively unadorned churches in celebration of this. Quakers, Pentecostals, and Charismatics wait for the Spirit of the Lord to speak into their hearts and minds, often unmediated by physical items, or persons of position. Despite the over played emotionalism of TV Pentecost, the value of pursuing the ancient mysticism of traditions similar to Anabaptism - some of which reach back into the earliest days of Christianity, and into the record of the Book of Acts itself is as needful to be embraced as is the beauty of the iconography of Orthodoxy.

There are Emergent Pentecostals embracing, or at the least gaining appreciation for the ancient arts of iconography, but I am not sure that an appreciation for the unmediated radical pursuit of the ecstatic which has marked Quaker, Anabaptist, and Pentecostal traditions is receiving equal respect. The ancient practice of waiting on Pentecost for the unmediated movement of the Spirit in power and grace is a discipline I would encourage all Emergent thinkers to investigate without prejudice.

Even as I write this, it is now possible to go online and find a thing never before seen by religious people: Mennonite Icons designed by Orthodox iconographers. The ancient icon makers and the iconoclasts have met, and are working together.

Can the Emergent conversation become a place where both worlds meet, dialogue, and learn to worship and celebrate together?


carl said...

In my opinion, plain white walls do get old. I've been aware of peoples concern of icons becoming idolatrous yet when I look at those ancient icons and imagine who made them and why they made them, I imagine someone of a pure and beautiful faith in Christ. This is a tradition that I have not explored that much. I think it is very intriguing.

andrew jones said...

good post. i think evangelicals and prots have had icons for some time (crosses, bread, wine) but have taken them for granted and the thinking behind them.

Pastor Phil said...


You and I both come from traditions with some degree of iconoclasm. Wesley was a reformer of a simple tradition, and my Christian roots are in the Jesus people movement which is simple, and liberated pentecostalism by nature. Like you I find myself appreciating the ancient arts, and looking to heart of anciwnt mysticism for something of the Spirit which may have been left behind when movements based in simplicity and the ecstatic came along.

Pastor Phil said...


Thanks or popping into the blog. I've enjoyed checking out tall skinny kiwi from time to time, and really liked your recent short tour of Wales. (I've got hiraeth gnawing away at me daily.)

You are correct about taking our icons for granted, but even beyond taking them for granted, we have developed a theology which gives no grace or holiness to the physical item. Though this is not necessarily a bad doctrine in itself, except that it can lead to an extreme position of saying that not only is the physical item not "graced," but that in fact it is nothing, or if viewed as graced it becomes an idol. So the tension is always present.

I just noticed your own post about Calvary Chapel and icons from last year How Your Emerging Church Can Stay in Calvary Chapel, Inc. Of course as evidence that tensions continue Chuck Jr. is no longer a part of the movement. Having cut my teeth in Calvary Chapel, Foursquare, and Vineyard (to a lesser degree) I feel these tensions well, but seek to guide others thorugh them as best as possible. Your post is a helpful guide.

zaque said...

It's only been recently that I've noticed Evangelicals like Ken Silva and others go crazy over religious icons and "christian mysticism." I find it hard to believe these things could lead to idolatry when it is so abudantly apparent that there is idolatry all around us.

Everywhere I look, sex is selling me crap I don't need. And everywhere I look, I see people holding on to things with dire desperation, because they think it will complete them as individuals.

The short of it is, almost anything can be an idol.

But for religious iconography to be considered idolatrous seems ludicrous in my opinion. These works of art inspire me, give me pause, cause me to think, but in every function, they are transitional. This art led to me thinking about the art, which in turn, inspired me to pray, which in turn, led me to speak to my Creator. But do I pray to the frigging painting? Of course not.

To blanket something with a stereotype is logic of cretans. Religion to me, was never meant to be an opiate, but rather, a wake-up call. The Christian walk is an individual one and for religious leaders to say this thing or that thing is sinful when such things are not inherently sinful, is absolutely and without prejudice, stupid.

I find God to be sufficient when there is a need to speak to sin in my life. And God knows that my Yoga class isn't going to be my spiritual downfall. Neither is religious icons or Catholic dogma. God gave me a sound mind. I don't need to judge my actions in the light of other people's opinion of what Scripture might be saying, but rather, in the light of Scripture itself and what God is speaking to me through said Scripture.

The opinion of Kirk Cameron or Ray Comfort or Ken Silva or any one else should not be enough to affect my behavior. But it's my own walk with Christ that is the ultimate benchmark for my salvation.

Pastor Phil said...


Your yoga class? Hmmmm...that's it we're demoting you down one level in the inferno.

Great post bro.

Of course, the second commendment makes this a sticking point for many iconoclasts, and in some sense I can admire them, being an iconoclast of sorts myself, but your point stereotyping icon use is well said.

Yet, I have seen idolatrous use of icons at the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and had a sense of what the early Anabaptists must have been combatting. Yet is does not follow every use of icons by any means.

carl said...

...and speaking of plain white walls this past weekend I was at what I sensed to be (by both word of mouth and my own vibe) a truly genuine and passionate place of worship for a friend's event. This place was white on the outside and plain white on the inside. This large church made for a lot of white. I'm not sure whether they are iconoclast or if they lack appreciation for color/art(which is ok).

zaque said...

I agree. I guess my main point is that this is something for the individual. Icons are not inherently sinful. Like eating meat is not inherently sinful, or drinking a beer is not inherently sinful.

But for some people, these things are a struggle to overcome. For example, alcoholics shouldn't have beer, period.

Pastor Phil said...


When you understand the traditions behind the architecture, and simplicity or ornateness it brings appreciation, doesn't it?

Pastor Phil said...

Beer too?! Okay that's it one level lower again. Pretty soon you will reach the bottom of the inferno.

Wish we were close enough to meet for a Guinness.

hylander said...

I personally do not have problems with art, icons or symbols that promote a point of reference to assist the worshipper to praise God or help him/her to pray. I think we can find some Biblical examples of this in both the O.T.(i.e. Temple, Tabernacle etc.) and N.T. But, like what many have previously noted above, if "too" much devotion or attention is pointed toward that item one is using in the pursuit to become closer with God, then I believe we have a serious problem.

For example, lets say I am on my way to the mountain top and I forget a particular prayer cloth that I use when I pray, or a picture of an Orthodox dome or a picture of Jerusalem, or that piece of rock from an ancient christian monastary, or whatever it may be, and as a result it hinders my ability to conduct that which I came to do, (i.e. pray, study, meditate etc). Even as much as I enjoy reciting the prayers from the Puritan Prayer book, and try as best as I can to be sincere, they are still someone elses words and not my own. In the same way, it hinders my deep need to express my self to God with the "nakedness" of my soul without the need for a icon.

I think it is interesting to seek what the people of faith did 2000 years ago. I actually read more literature from antiquities than I do modern. The only reason I read some of the modern stuff is to hopefully sound a little like I know what I am talking about. But, I must say, all this emergent movement toward the mystic is a bit too off the chart for what I would consider "orthodox" and my reformed tendency. Granted, I am strongly missional and belong to a movement that some would consider "emerging" due to my involvement with the Acts 29 Network of churches under Mark Driscoll. But, seriously, the prayer labyrinths, the lecto devina, and the other mystical prayers et al, which I have tried by the way, all leave me with serious doubt as to why people are trying to resurrect these dead acts of worship. I think there is good reason why they were abandoned in the first place. It is characteristic of the people who are embracing change to look and latch onto that which gives purpose and a reason for the change. I am not certain nor convinced at this time, that embracing such practices without a thorough and honest search within the context of christian history would be deemed wise. Just because certain christians during the 1800s dressed in white sheets/robes waiting on roof tops for the Jesus' second coming does not make it so. Don't get me wrong, I am all for investigating and searching these practices and weighing them with Scripture. If they line up, great! If they don't, they need to be discarded.

I would rather error on the side of simplicity myself. I would also suggest that an appropriate balance needs to be addressed regarding iconology. I too have my roots embedded with those of the Calvary/Foursquare/AoG churches. Later in my spiritual walk I become greatly influenced with the teachings of the Reformers. I still wait for the Spirit though! :)

Anyways, thanks for the topic Phil, as always, you give us food for thought and a medium for us to exchange our ideas.

My family and I are praying for you, your family, and especially for Elijah!

All for Christ!

William (hylander)

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Will,

Thanks for posting here on the icon issue. I tend toward the iconoclastic myself, and that is the nature of revivalistic Christianity such as Pentecostalism, and Evangelicalism, but we have found some great depth in lectio divina - doing it a group lately, and it has brought a sense of depth and personal application to the scriptures for many of our people.

If there are things which had impact in antiquity I do want to re-discover that positive benefit, but not necessarily at the loss of of things more recent. It's a meat and bones season, and I'm looking at spitting bones.