It’s that time of year, when celebrities and artists engage in self-promotional campaigning and play dress-up in hopes of snaring a nomination for a critic’s award or a guild award or an “arts and sciences” trophy celebrating their excellence, and the rest of us watch them do it. We watch them for the fashions and for the foibles; it is mildly entertaining to observe the bejeweled denizens of Hollywood betray uncertainty when someone like Ricky Gervais begins his banquet-hosting duties by insulting them.
We watch because we like glamour, and there is so little of it in our “work-casual” world, where looking like an unmade bed has become so acceptable in some parts of the country that teenagers go to school in their pajamas.
And we watch because, to an extent that perhaps we do not even realize, we’ve grown accustomed to having idols abuzz in our awareness. They’re not real idols, after all; we don’t actually worship our celebrities, or for that matter our politicians. Not if we are sane.
We remember the story of Moses and the Golden Calf, though, so we know human beings have always created idols. If, some decades ago, we were smart enough to be a little embarrassed about fainting for Sinatra, or screaming for John, Paul, George, and Ringo, we called it adolescent silliness, and considered that idol-making was a rare and harmless pastime.
It was never so rare, or harmless. And as our post-modern society becomes increasingly post-faith, our instincts to raise up entertainers as idols become more frequently indulged, and perhaps we manufacture more of these idols now. Is there a nation that does not have a slew of “Idol-creating” television shows, where celebrity magazines don't cover the newsstands? Even our “serious” newspapers carry pages of social or celebrity profiles.
We construct these godlettes, carry them about on chairs of untoward affirmation, and then resurrect them when they die. We place them in our tin-ceilinged firmaments, and then—if they were in a film that added a catchy phrase to the lexicon, or they posed for a poster that came to define an era, or they influenced fashion in some way, or somehow came to represent some ideal we hold dear—we call them “icons.”
That, however, is where things get dicey, and where we should perhaps pay attention to our words, and our meanings. An Icon is a holy thing, meant to be a reverenced focal point for prayer and contemplation; it is a “window” to the divine. An Icon is as distinct from an idol as is a positive from a negative:
An Icon looks out from an Intrinsic light and points to its Source; there are no shadows in which to hide. An idol looks out from man-created light, and points to no one but himself; then walks into the shadows.
An Icon looks you straight in the eye and invites you to pursue truth. An idol wears shades and has his spokesperson tell you what you want to hear.
An Icon teaches you how to focus; how to quiet down, collect oneself and hear the small, still voice. An idol throws noise, images, and issues at you, non-stop—scatters your thinking and deafens you to any voice but his.
An Icon whispers wisdom. An idol shouts sound-bites and mindless trendspeak.
An Icon inspires you to chant to the Most High. An idol inspires you to chant to him.
One Icon currently gracing my prayer space is called “Lord, Save Me." It is a richly colored image recounting the moment in the Gospel of Matthew, when Peter begins to walk toward Christ, on the water:
When the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once (Jesus) spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how (strong) the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:26-31)
As long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, Peter had been able to do the impossible, the unimaginable. It was when he looked away—focused instead on the tumult surrounding him—that he doubted, and as soon as he doubted, he began to sink.
As soon as he thought of himself, focused on his perceived reality, Peter was pulled under.
“Lord Save Me” is a particularly restful Icon. The colors are lush, the waves in foreground and background are wonderfully hypnotic, and the shore invites a trek into the wilderness. But it is the beautifully-rendered, compassionate, and loving face of Christ that holds my attention. He reaches out to Peter, whose own face is open with a dawn of understanding, and meeting his eyes, uplifts him.
This Icon contains the whole of the Gospel—lessons of reverence, trust, divinity, openness, vulnerability, kindness, wonder, mystery, human potential, miracles, and yes, limitations and boundaries. That is what an Icon does; bestows positive instruction on The Way, tells the Gospel within the borders of an image.
Perhaps there are some who can look at an “iconic” photograph of Michael Jackson on his toes, or Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing about her, or Frank Sinatra with his tilted porkpie hat, and read those same lessons, find the Good News. But I suspect that a snapshot rendered in noise, by humans, of humans, for humans, does little to point the viewer toward anything greater than the self, even if that self is projected upon others, so that the more adept we become at worshiping our idols, the more we worship nothing but ourselves.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here