Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite authors. I was 9 or 10 when I first read “A Wrinkle in Time” and was thus and forevermore hooked on her writing. Through the years, I’ve moved from her-would they be considered Young Adult books?-to her adult fiction, to her journals, to her essays. A short time ago, I found “Penguins & Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places” and, I must admit, had a knee-jerk reaction to the words “Icons and Idols”. I believe I’ve mentioned before I don’t have an extensive religious background but that doesn’t mean those beliefs haven’t made their way into my mental processes. Aren’t icons wrong? Aren’t icons and idols synonymous? Do I have to stop reading one of my favorite authors?
I had already read the The Genesis Trilogy by Ms. L’Engle and had found them beautiful. My faith had grown reading these books and so, trusting Ms. L’Engle wasn’t about to let me down now, bought this book. I have never been sorry that I did so and, like every other book written by Madeleine L’Engle I have read, this one made me sit down and peruse my own life. Did I have icons in my life? If I did, was that wrong? Did I (gasp) have idols? How could I know? What was the difference?
In my attempts to answer these questions, I first, I looked to the dictionary definitions of icon. My Second College Edition New World Dictionary of the American Language give me: “an image, figure, representation.” The Webster’s New Reference Library: An Encyclopedia of Dictionaries stated “a religious image painted on a panel.” I have seen icons fitting these definitions and appreciated them as art but they’ve never inspired me to pray or worship. There is nothing in those painted images that remind me of the vibrant apostles who were flogged, jailed, stoned, driven from cities and towns, and, in some cases; killed. Neither have I been transfixed by any image of Jesus. How could I possibly be so? What image could ever compare with He who is utter livingness as revealed in Revelation 1: 10-18? The answer then is no: by these definitions, I have no icons.
Madeleine L’Engle has a personal, more extensive definition of Icon. She writes; “What do I mean by icon?…I am not thinking of the classic definition of icons so familiar in the orthodox church, icons of Christ, the Theotokos, saints, painted on wood and often partially covered with silver. My personal definition is much wider, and the simplest way I can put it into words is to affirm that an icon, for me is an open window to God. An icon is something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God and God’s demands on us, el’s mortal children, than I would otherwise.” (Page 8) And then: “If something does not lead us to God it is not and cannot be an icon.” (Page 10)
By this definition, there are many things I would consider icons. Waterfalls, rivers, oceans, mountains, ravines, the sky overhead…all at one time have revealed some aspect of God to me that sent my heart soaring in worship and praise at the greatness of His love. On a smaller scale, I suppose I would say turtles are an icon. From their shells to their slowness to their determination, I see in turtles something that reveals who God is to me on this spiritual journey. So then yes: considering an icon as an open window to God, I have many such icons in my life.
If I say I have icons, do I then have idols? Just what is an idol? Can an icon become an idol? It seems that yes they can because Madeleine L’Engle also writes, “You may not turn an image into God, because that is to turn an icon into an idol.” (Page 14). Before I can worry about whether or not I’ve been turning my icons into idols, I must understand what an idol is.
Returning to my dictionary, I find the following definitions for Idol: “an image of a god, used as an object or instrument of worship.” It seems to me that, to turn an icon into an idol, the heart of the matter (literally and figuratively) is worship. The Second Commandment says “You shall not make for yourself a carved image-any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall now bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20: 4-5a)
I suppose the fact that I have a turtle pendant would mean I possess a graven image but it was not given to me as such nor do I worship it. I see aspects of God revealed in nature but that doesn’t mean I become an Animist. Do I then believe that, as long as they do not become idols, icons are acceptable? I live in a world I perceive with my senses. How else is an invisible God going to reveal Himself to me except through the works of His hands? Romans 1:20 says “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world.” It is not idolatry to find God in His Creation as long as, I think, I do not stop with the creation but continue to look through that window to Him.
Madeleine L’Engle writes “Jesus should be for us the icon of icons. God sending heaven to earth, ‘Lord of lords in human vesture.’”(Page 93).
Jesus as The Icon. I admit to a bit of knee jerk reaction at that thought as well. And yet, Colossions 1:15 does state, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” so perhaps the thought isn’t sacrilegious after all. While it doesn’t hurt to give my life a thorough examining, perhaps I will merely thank Him for revealing Himself to me no matter how He chooses to do so. And, I can thank Him that I don’t have to stop reading one of my favorite authors.
The quotes were taken from “Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places” by Madeleine L’Engle published by Shaw Books in 2003.