Iconoclasm and Ignorance


My expectations for intelligent discussion on television is close to nil. An example, on the subject of icons and statues, can be found on Handmaid Leah’s site. If you want to see the subject handled badly on television take a look. I promise a posting on the doctrine of the holy icons in the near future. My thanks to Leah for her posting this small video. We need to speak in some fashion to these sorts of distortions. I’ll not be surprised if they call us cannibals next week for eating the Body and Blood of Christ.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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27 responses to “Iconoclasm and Ignorance”

  1. Earthman Xosha Rosp Avatar

    Hate to tell you this, but there’s been allegations of metaphorical cannibalism going around ever since there were people who didn’t like Christians.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Been there. Heard that. 🙂

  3. Jake Belder Avatar

    Wow, that is, well, pathetic. I am neither Orthodox or Catholic and I recognize full well the degree of ignorance there. The unfortunate thing is the authority which these words will have for television audiences, and the lack of discretion that will be taken by those who let the words filter in.

  4. cp Avatar

    I guess I think that if you look to popular modern media for any kind of truth, then you deserve to be disappointed.

    It is sad. But it’s certainly not at all surprising.

    Lord, have mercy.

  5. cp Avatar

    Wow, please forgive – that sounded sort of arrogant, yet arrogance is not what I intended.

    I only meant to say that God is in so little of what sells and what is popular on television, that this sort of thing shouldn’t surprise anyone. As far as television and most other popular media goes, virtually nothing is sacred or holy anymore.

  6. bettertobemeek Avatar

    A couple weeks ago I passed a television station only to see a statue of Mary holding a crucifix being smashed with a hammer (directly in Mary’s and Christ’s faces) by the preacher to the entertainment and applause of his congregation. (You can, unfortunately find the video for this by searching “Gino Jennings 609” in youtube –though I don’t think it’s healthy to watch). Not surprisingly, when I checked out this guy’s website, it lists the notion of 3 distinct Persons in the Trinity as “damnable doctrine” and other such non-sense. Seeing such iconoclasm upsets me deeply and I’m not sure how to react. I know we should pray, live the truth, deny false teaching, but is there anything else one can do to?

  7. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    CP, that’s why I haven’t owned a TV for the last ten years. And before that, it was just another thing for me to dust.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    More people will have watched that show than we have Orthodox in America and we cannot ignore that, though our trust is in God, not in our presence in the media. But we need to be clear as Orthodox as to why we do what we do.

  9. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Mary Lowell, I also don’t own a TV.

  10. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth

    Another reason I’m very glad I’m tv free (and have been for four years).

  11. T Avatar

    This attitude, as expressed by Mrs. Behr (sp??) is just the fruit of where our nation comes from: Renaissance, Humanist, Reformation and Enlightenment-era thinking where all of life is devoid of any magic, mystery, or hope. Not a surprise at all. It’s unfortunate, but not a surprise.

  12. Milan Avatar

    Lord, have mercy (X 40)!
    Please-please don’t take me wrong – but the video is a typical example of what – according to the Balkan-stereotype-terminology – is called “American idiotism”. In the same time the recorded conversation reminds me how priests and believers were medically treated as mentally ill in Soviet Russia because of their faith in God! I don’t know what’s worse to do about this – I would feel stupid to argument against it and in the same time – it shouldn’t be simply ignored.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    The program is largely one of the least intelligent programs on television where personalities (tv types) are assembled to just emote on one topic or another and occasionally attack one another or someone. There is no guiding philosophy or anything, just people who say things they think or feel.

    However, as bad as all that is, it is a very popular television show in America, and illustrates in what sad shape we are in when it comes to pretty much anything.

    What I found illustrative about this short segment, is that media America does not mind being utterly iconoclastic and attack the religious practices of either Catholics or Orthodox without hesitation (much less understanding). It says that certain segments of the Christian world have been extremely marginalized by mainstream media.

    Like the early Apologists, St. Justin and others, there is a role to be played by Christians in educating the world around them to what we think and why. Of course, many Christians would have immediately agreed with the sentiments expressed on this program. Iconoclasm is by far closer to the ruling elite’s thoughts than iconodulia.

    Of course the only thing that makes this a segment of the elite, is that they have access to the public airwaves and make lots of money.

    In terms of addressing the culture, Orthodox Christians have a long, long way to go.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Elizabeth Hasselbeck does not seem to know much more about the faith she professes than those who attack it. Her comments seem to be based just as much on the subjectivity of feelings. As would seem logical she is also just as much a relativist. Seems to me a modern day form of pietism.

    It is pietistic Christianity that is the most iconoclastic.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    It demonstrates the need for the 7th Council. That the Holy Icons should be surrounded with the safeguard of true doctrine, teaching us both why they can be made, and how they can be honored, in such a way that honors God and edifies the soul. Without such safeguards we are all left to the whims of our own inner turmoil.

  16. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    I am not sure hat happened to my reply to this very important topic, which I posted several days ago, but I will try to re-create my sentiments towards the video in brief.: 1) There is a need for Orthodox Christians to address the joy of ascesis, which includes the benefits of seeing God and the saints in icons; 2) the 7th Ecumenical Council’s conclusions about veneration of icons are applicable when comparing photographic/artistic images side-by-side with holy icons: namely, to evaluate what actually detracts from the human experience of God and what accentuates the human experience of relationship to God. With regard to the silly comments in the video, there is little to say except that the comments are silly because they are ignorant. I hope that this response will post and that others might respond either about the joy of ascesis as “seeing” the “holy” or about the educational strategy of side-by-side comparisons as a pedagogic method. Thanks.

  17. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    The didactic role of icons is deeply rooted in our capacity to apprehend non-empirical realities through images and symbols. The communicative power of images is also employed for the dark purposes of capturing and corrupting the soul. Expressions of creaturely despair and raw vulgarity are ubiquitous in our society, profaning the minds of all who behold them. They are especially injurious to the thoughts of impressionable youths whose spiritual formation we often neglect, either through our timidity to oppose God-despising popular culture or our self- absorption in other activity. In complete contrast to these destructive images, the divine images of Orthodox iconography preach redemption to the world. The holy icons are our family portraits that make present the material memory of venerable persons who “have fought the good fight.” They describe the deified nature of those who have labored to unite us to Christ.

    Thus, the Church has the responsibility to put before the people of God, and particularly our psychologically tender children, an antidote for what is relentlessly cast before them on television, movies, billboards, magazines and the Internet. If we cannot always protect our children from such profanation, we must surround them with the holy icons that instruct us in piety and virtue and assist us in heroic struggle against fallen angels and our own passions. No Orthodox temple is complete without these shepherds of our souls that visually bear witness to the triumph of the Kingdom of God. No Orthodox home should be without them.

  18. Raphael Avatar

    Father and others,
    While this video is troubling, it is not surprising. We do have a responsibillity to educate and attempt to transform the world. However!

    We should never be surprised when the ‘The World’ is anti-Christian.

    Where do the Scriptures say being a Christian gets you the easy life. Ask Job if he thought it was easy remaining true to his faith. Or any of the apostles or thousands of martyrs who where killed for thier faith.

    Christ did not promise happiness or an easy life, but rather struggle and adversity. The lives of the Saints are filled with those whose struggle increased as they increased in theosis.

    St. John of Kronstadt was despised by much of the establishment.

    Likewise with St. John of San Francisco, heck they even took him to court and accused him of embezzlement.

    St. Raphael was removed from the Altar at the Antiochian church in Moscow (where he was it’s priest-in-charge) for standing up to the corrupt election of the new Patriarch of Antioch. He was later arrested in New York for inciting a riot. Turns out the Melkite Catholics didn’t like having an Orthodox priest in town, drawing worshipers from their own edifcaces.

    Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
    (Matt 5:11-12)

  19. fatherstephen Avatar


    It is as you say. I certainly was not surprised by the clip – but took it as an example of what surrounds us. It will likely get much darker before the dawn.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Forgive my editing some comments (including one of my own) we were drifting off course a bit.

  21. handmaid Avatar

    Thank you Father, had I had the ability I would have done so myself…

  22. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    Bless Father Stephen, dear Friends in Christ,

    I would like to add another remark or two about the savvy that is required of an educator in Christ, who can watch the video (posted by Leah) as opportunity to disclose the very Christ whom many consider antique or quaint, at best. Such distancing of self to the one who sees “you” in an icon is the phenomenon–spiritual posture of arrogance– of the four panelists in the video (particularly, the panelist seated to the left of Whoopi Goldberg).

    Therefore, I concur with many others who have responded to the video. It would seem that God is calling us to educate. It is not easy to hear the call inside this video clip, what with all of the video’s soundbites, witty reparte, cultural banter, and frank suspiciousness among at least several of the panelists. But I think that the video is a “call.”

    The call that I hear from God also draws me to respond to Mary Lowell’s considered remarks about memory. In particular, the “memory” embedded in an icon is not removed in time from the moment of viewing the icon. In short, veneration of an icon inside a family’s home is not a reason for parents to compare their children or themselves with the iconographic image, unless there is certainty, in every comparison made about the “virtues,” that God forgives us and wants to unleash the image of God’s own Son inside the choices that we make in thought and deed. Otherwise, if the image were to be considered removed by time, or distance, or culture, or language–all Byzantine icons would be relegated to the trash or at best some museum, instead of holding our attentiion as we work, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to become like Christ.

    I propose an alternative to the icon as calling to mind the past. Rather, a Christian icon should be a divine tool to awaken one to what might be called “living memory.” Living memory is the emergence of the viewer as object, no more and no less than the wood or other substance on which the icon appears as static or non-interactive.

    My use of the word “object” in reference to the viewer might raise an eyebrow or two, so I will elaborate on the word object. I use the word “object” to convey a simple idea. The icon is not only painted or carved as looking, sometimes depicted to look at us, but actually looks at us just as we look at the image. To see the holy image brings the moment to the here and now…thus, providing a point of spiritual interaction. We can venerate this interaction by faith, without falling into the traps of historicism, idolatry, substitutionism, or even trying to distinguish so-called fact from so-called fiction.

    Concluding my response, I think that education about icons must focus on the interaction of the icon and the viewer. God calls us through these holy icons to come home. The call to come home used to be the best call of the day in my family when all of us kids were hungry, and Mom called out our names from the front door to come to the table for chow.

    Not every child has a fond memory of a call to come home, as do I. But every morning when I greet Christ the Pantocrator, and the Panagia of Tender Mercy, and John the Forerunner, and a host of saints–I hear the call to come home. They want to talk with me by faith and in thanksgiving. I am curious about how others interact with holy icons and how this interaction changes their lives, too. With devotion to our exchanges on this wonderful blog, and thanks for your patience in considering these ideas…

  23. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell

    St. John Damascene, writing in the 8th century, was deeply aware of the capacity for images to declare our identity when he said, “Show me the icons you honor, that I may understand what you believe.” This a frightening commentary on the images set before in the profane culture that dominates
    the media. It is one of the reasons Islam hates us.

    All artistic imagery poses a wordless conversation between subject and object, between the viewer and that which is viewed. But the icon confronts us with a reality that our bodily eye cannot perceive; it invites and initiates a conversation in many ways more direct and sure than words, not with a painted object, however artfully rendered, but with the God of eternity.

    For Orthodox Christians, the subjects depicted in the icons: Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, prophets, saints, martyrs and the angelic powers, mystically populate the worshipping congregation on earth, superceding the constraints of time and space. In this respect, Orthodox worship is amphibious: the earthly dwelling with the heavenly and the heavenly dwelling with mankind. The icons are our helpers in this regard, not as objects of worship, as many have accused us, but as quickeners of holy memory that embraces all of time and yet exist outside time.

  24. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    Dear Mary Lowell, “…as quickeners of holy memory…” is the poetry of the encounter with the living God. Thank you, Mary, for these words.

    Just this evening I was feeling sad about something, and I remembered the Theophany. Later, while pondering an icon of the Theophany, I ran across a liturgical prayer from the 1989 New Zealand Prayer Book (part of the worldwide Anglican Communion)–page 562:

    Holy Spirit,
    as you drove Jesus into the wilderness,
    when John baptized Him and the heavens opened,
    drive us to wrestle and reflect
    so that we may fulfill our baptism,
    and live your life of victory. Amen.

    Still, a little later, one of the “duck-mobiles” with a boat-load of South Beach tourists drove close by my place on Miami Beach. My sadness had melted away already in the joy of the Theophany. Then I saw the “duck-mobile” plunge into the ocean near-by, as the tourists peppered the air with screams of delight. (Seems charming until you see it three or four times every day–like watching tourists on cable cars outside where I once lived in San Francisco.)

    Minutes passed and I read your allusion to the amphibious character of Orthodox worship, and I had a solid example of another kind of amphibious vehicle to share with you.

    I like your image of earth and heavenly water mixed together in the Divine Liturgy, indeed, in all Orthodox worship. Thank you, once again.

  25. Ben Avatar

    I will admit, aside from the veneration of Mary, one of the hardest things to come to terms with in Orthodoxy were Icons. Not so much the icons themselves, but the actions directed towards Icons. When I first entered an Orthodox church I saw people kissing these icons, and I was able to do so with a clear conscious as that this was glorifying to God, but when I told someone about that they said “I don’t know. Isn’t that taking it a little too far.”

    After evaluating it, I think “No.” It is not taking it too far. Here is the reason.

    When Christ came to the earth, we were witness to the incarnation of God. Somehow, bread and wine now became blood and body. The dead came back to life. Saints were taken up into heaven. Dead men came alive and preached repentence. Things that had been used for evil and perverse purposes before this point were transformed into the Holy. Why do you think that Jesus spent time with prostitutes and tax collectors? He was fullfilling the mission of the Father, to invade the world with the Kingdom of God! Why then can we not believe that God in his infinite goodness would desire to reconcile once pagan art to himself?

    Think about it. Before Christ, art had been used as idolatry. It had been ascribed to as a representation of a false God. The Israelites were told not to create “vain images”. The reason being that no Israelite had seen God and thus had no right to describe him in visual form. After all he is Yahweh, “I am who I will be.” All they had seen was God’s law. When Christ came, we see not the law, but the fulfillment of the law, CHRIST INCARNATE. So really Icons are in fact of the same substance as the incarnation. To believe in Icons is to believe in the incarnation. (I don’t think that I can really buy the argument that the opposite is true however because I have known many people outside of Orthodoxy who were true God worshipers but did not kiss icons.)

    I think in this case, it is the East that must come to the aid of the West. Just as the Latin West was one of the major proponents FOR Iconodules at the 7th council, so now the East should return the favor. After all, the anathema has been lifted, and though we do not enjoy full communion yet, perhaps the issue of Icons can be one of the things that brings us together so that we may be, as Christ wishes and commands, “one.”

  26. stephen Avatar

    “”Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?

    “”Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

    Isn’t prayer intimacy with God? Prayer to anyone else is called harlotry and sexual immorality?

    Giving honor is one thing but praying to those who have passed.

    this confuses me you say you cannot know if you will go to heaven until you die. No body can no and nobody can declare.

    yet the church declares that people DID go to heaven.

    this seems like a contradiction to me.

    Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.””

    thats worth repeating “…examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true…”

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