“That’s Jesus!” A Counter-point to Megan Hill’s “Why Jesus Doesn’t Belong in Christmas Decor”

The church that we attend has a lot of stained glass. Wrapping around the sanctuary are beautiful stained glassed panes. If you start in the corner at the front of the sanctuary and walk around counter-clock-wise, you can follow the life of Christ, one pane at a time. Where we sit every Sunday (yes we are those people who sit in the same pew every week), the stained glass pane directly behind us is of Jesus hanging on the cross. Every week we sit under the same pane, with Jesus hanging over our shoulder. When my two year old gets antsy as two year-olds are wont to do, she likes to turn around and fold herself over the back of the pew. One day, as she was trying to pull herself back up after folding too far over, she stopped.

“What’s that?” She asked, pointing at the stained glass.

“That’s a picture made of glass,” I replied.

“No, who’s that?” She pointed directly at Jesus.

“That’s Jesus.”

“Why?” Ah yes, the inevitable why. In as simple a way possible, I tried to explain that that was a picture of Jesus saving the world. The two year-old stopped, for a minute, tipped her head to one side, and then matter-of-factly said, “Jesus is a superhero!”

Now, every Sunday she points to the stained glass  behind our pew. “That’s Jesus!” She tells everyone. And of course, my four year-old, not wanting to be left out, makes a point of telling her sister that Jesus is not just in the stained-glass windows, but more importantly, he’s in the Bible.

In our church service there is intentionality in how we worship. The entire liturgy is designed to draw upon all our human senses. We watch a cross being carried in during the processional. We hear the Word proclaimed. We respond to the Gospel reading by singing “Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” In unison we affirm the life and work of Christ as we recite the Apostles’ Creed. When the pastor preaches on an aspect of the life of Christ, he draws our attention to the stained-glass panel, so that we not only listen, but also visually contemplate the significance of Jesus’ actions.

In a recent article at Hermeneutics, Megan Hill argues that physical images, be it drawings or figurines, of Jesus does not belong in our Christmas décor. She appeals to the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 not bow down to them or serve them….”

Yes, physical images can lead to idolatry, especially if we cast Jesus in our own image and then proclaim that he must only look that way. But guess what?  Verbal constructs can lead to idolatry as well, especially if we translate the words of Jesus and then proclaim that Jesus must have used King James’ English! The creation of physical images does not have to necessarily lead to the worship of said images, just as the translation of the Scriptures does not necessarily lead to the worship of said Bible.

Hill suggests that it because Jesus is fully divine, that we should not and cannot create images of him: “Though fully human, his humanity cannot be separated from his divine person, which means visual images of Jesus are, in fact, attempting to picture God.”

I want to suggest that the opposite is also true: Jesus’ humanity cannot be separated from his divine person (hence, not only his bodily resurrection, but also his bodily ascension into heaven), which means that visual images are, in fact, attempting to understand the reality of Jesus’ humanity.

If Jesus is just a vague, unphysical concept in our head, he becomes an abstraction. When his humanity takes a back seat to his divinity, he becomes more like a demi-god rather than the second Person of the Trinity who took on the flesh and blood reality of the human experience. In becoming an abstraction, we forget or water down the significance of the event of revelation, namely, that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And the Word taking on flesh was not a temporary thing. After his death and resurrection Jesus did not abandon his flesh, but in the ascension he bodily returned to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.

What well-done images and portraits of Jesus do is what the Bible does just in a different medium: they tell the story of the life and ministry of Jesus, who was, in the words of Karl Barth, “the object and theatre of the acts of God.” The images of Jesus, be they stained glass  windows in a church, a figurine of baby Jesus in a nativity scene, or an actor portraying Jesus in film, tell us the story visually. When paired with the oral tradition of hearing and telling, physical images of Jesus help us to not only tell the story, but also to respond to the story.

When we go to church each Sunday, my four year-old can “read” the Bible in the pew (recognizing letters but not understanding how the letters go together to tell the story of this Jesus who saved and is saving the world) and confess her belief in Jesus as she recites the Apostles’ Creed. My two year-old may not be able to read and may not be able to say the Creed, but she can point to the stained glass panel of Jesus hanging on the cross and confess her belief in Jesus: “That’s Jesus!”

Enhanced by Zemanta

Review: Did The First Christians Worship Jesus?

Did The First Christians Worship Jesus? is a continuation of an ongoing academic discussion on the nature of early Christian worship, rx between Larry Hurtado, physician Richard Bauckham and James Dunn. In this work, written at a level suitable for the general readership, Dunn notes that he does agree in principle with the writings of Hurtado and Bauckham, but that in this volume he wants to wrestle with those passages that seem to contradict the idea that the early Christians worshipped Jesus. If in fact the early Christians were hesitant to worship Jesus, Dunn believes that it is important to stop and ask why this is.

Dunn explores this by asking five primary questions: 1) What is worship, and does worship define God? 2) What did worship involve? 3) How was God’s self-revelation understood in biblical Judaism? 4) Was Jesus a monotheist? 5) What did Jesus’s exaltation to the right hand of the Father mean to the early Christians?[2] Dunn’s thesis is that, in the early Church, the worship of Jesus was not an alternative to the worship of God, it was a way of worshipping God. More precisely, the worship of Jesus was (and should be) wholly Trinitarian; that is, “Worship of Jesus that is not worship of God through Jesus, or, more completely, worship of God through Jesus and in the Spirit, is not Christian worship.”[3]

Dunn argues that the original question, “Did the first Christians worship Jesus?” is too narrow, and when taken at face value it should be answered in the negative. Better questions to ask, Dunn suggests, are “was the earliest Christian worship possible without and apart from Jesus?”[4] and, “did the first Christians include Jesus within this restricted worship, or did they somehow loosen the restrictions?”[5] Dunn is attempting to guard against the possibility of Christomonism, or in his words “Jesus-olatry”, wherein the worship of Jesus replaces the worship of God.

This book, while written at an easily-accessible level and marketed to the general Christian public, makes the reader feel like they have walked into the middle of a conversation without any prior context of the conversation. As well, because Dunn states that he is in agreement with Hurtado and Bauckham, the subtle arguments that he is making in relation to their broader conversation will probably be lost on those who have not fully followed the conversation. As such, Larry Hurtado’s review[6] helps to guide readers in understanding the broader conversation, as well as pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Dunn’s argument.

From a theological perspective, Dunn’s book is useful because he affirms and wants to ensure that all discussion of Christian worship is Trinitarian in nature. At the same time, the question needs to be asked if Dunn’s fear of “Jesus-olatry” is overblown. An examination of the Patristic development of Christology, even though it is extends beyond the first century data that Dunn is analyzing, would be useful to explore, particularly some of the early writings of Justin Martyr and Tertullian, to see if the worship of Jesus actually displaces the worship of God the Father. (Though space does not permit, I would argue that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity prevents this from occurring). That being said, Dunn’s worry about “Jesus-olatry” does not warrant criticisms that Dunn is undermining the foundations of Christian orthodoxy with his scholarly examination of the biblical texts.[7]



[1] James Dunn, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus: The New Testament Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Larry Hurtado, review of Did the First Christians Worship, by James Dunn, Journal of Theological Studies 61 (2010): 736-40.

[7] See for example, Paul Owen, review of Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence, by James Dunn, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (2011): 645-47.