new Mennonite Life logo    March 2004     vol. 59 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Borrowing with Respect and Authenticity

by Phyllis Bixler

Dr. Phyllis Bixler is Professor of English Emeritus at Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield. Previous teaching posts include Kansas State University, Bluffton College, and Bethel College.

When I asked Father Andrew Moore of the Orthodox church near my home what he thought of the term "Anabaptist icon," he responded, "That's an oxymoron." That this phrase combines two contradictory terms was my own first response as well. And so I was somewhat surprised that an acknowledged "irony" in the concept was not granted more importance in a MennoLink article (2/11/04) describing the sale of "Anabaptist icons" to benefit the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee. Similarly, when objections to such icons were expressed by some MennoLink discussants, I was surprised at the number of others who wondered, "What's the fuss?"

Perhaps because I am a retired English professor, concerns about language played a significant role in my initial response. Yes, as was pointed out on MennoLink, the word "icon" can have a variety of meanings, from a tiny picture on a computer screen to a real person such the singer Madonna when labeled a "popular culture icon." Words often have several meanings, however, which is why their interpretation typically depends on the context within which they are used.

Thus, when I hear the word "icon" used to describe a piece of religious artwork created by a "Bulgarian iconographer," I cannot help but recall the highly stylized religious portraiture I have seen in art history books as well as actual icons I have observed in exhibits from Czarist Russia; knowing that such icons or their metal coverings have sometimes been kissed by the devout, these icons inevitably remind me of the highly articulated, liturgical worship practiced for centuries within the Orthodox tradition.

When I hear the word "Anabaptist," on the other hand, I think of a specific group of 16th-century Christians whose iconoclasm belonged to a set of beliefs and commitments for which they were prepared to die; to die, moreover, at the hands of authorities representing Protestant and Roman Catholic churches whose worship services were somewhat different from Orthodox but similarly liturgical. To summarize, I find that I cannot easily divorce words from meanings they have long had for many people.

If communication is possible only because words do have certain collectively determined meanings, our response to specific words is also conditioned by our own personal experience. Doubtless part of my initial reaction to the idea of Anabaptist icons was shaped by the two Anabaptist-descended Mennonite churches within which I grew up. For my first ten to twelve years, my family attended a small, clapboard "Old Mennonite" church with plain windows, no musical instruments, and no pictures on the wall that I can remember--though I do recall colored pictures of Biblical scenes being used in Sunday School. I have only fond memories of services there led by a pastor who often made apparently spontaneous choices of congregational hymns for my father to lead. By the time I was baptized, my family had joined a "General Conference" church, where we did have a piano and organ and where services were a bit more preplanned; but except for a small open Bible painted at the front of the church, the décor was similarly plain.

Alongside these recollections of the Mennonite church lie my impressions of the Orthodox church which I recently attended with a Ukrainian student living with me. These services only reinforced my association of the word "icon" with a highly traditional liturgy. In addition, the "iconostasis" suggested to me a sharp distinction between clergy and laity as the robed priest sometimes chanted or spoke from behind this icon-holding screen, which stretched across the front of the church. I could not help noticing the contrast to the lack of clerical vestments and strong lay leadership in worship I have witnessed in Mennonite churches during my youth and since.

To be sure, there was much that I admired in this Orthodox church. Families with young children stood during long stretches of services that could last up to two hours. This very small, relatively new congregation was conspicuously multi-ethnic, reflecting the church's global embrace. And when congregation and priest welcomed me warmly to the basement potluck after worship, I witnessed an admirable sense of community and dedication.

Hence, when Dr. James Juhnke asked me to write a response to Dr. Don Lemons' essay, "Icons for Mennonites," I of course decided to interview Fr. Andrew. What he said about icons was entirely congruent with Dr. Lemons' essay. For example, that, having been created in God's "image," we are all "living icons"; that although we have darkened that image, Christ works within us to restore its original "transparency." Picking up on the word "transparency," Fr. Andrew described an icon as a "window" to be venerated not for itself but for the reality to be seen through it. The Incarnation "elevates the materiality of our bodies and of the world" (Dr. Lemons), which blesses our senses, including their "need to be fed during worship" (Fr. Andrew).

There is much that appeals to me here. As a description of the Christian's journey I much prefer "restoring God's image within us" to "killing of the old Adam," which was one part of early Anabaptist's concept of "the baptism of blood," according to The Anabaptist Seed as summarized on a Mennonite Church USA website. And I can't help but think that the iconoclasm of the Anabaptists and their descendents has been in part related to their belief that even "after the baptisms of Spirit and water, they would still face a constant struggle against 'the flesh' and 'the world.'"

During my discussion of Anabaptist icons with Fr. Andrew, he said, "You really must talk with my good friend Fr. Josef Von Claar, an Orthodox priest in St. Louis. He grew up Old Order Amish." I immediately called him.

On the subject of Orthodox icons, Fr. Josef built on what I had learned from Fr. Andrew and Dr. Lemons' essay. Pointing to the crucial role of the Incarnation, for example, Fr. Josef said one will "never see an icon of God the Father, because He was never incarnate--unlike the Holy Spirit which did appear as a dove." When I said that I thought a new Anabaptist icon of Dirk Willems' rescue of his pursuer made the scene less threatening than the original Jan Luykens' engraving from Martyr's Mirror, Fr. Josef said, "that is traditional." "In the Eastern tradition, you'll never see an image of Jesus all bloodied up. We don't want to give Satan the satisfaction of dwelling on this aspect of Christ's experience; we emphasize the triumph. It's the West that has focused on the pain and the gore." Fr. Josef implicitly agreed with Dr. Lemons' statements that "icons are the opposite of the images in Mel Gibson's recent movie," The Passion of Christ, and that "icons are not intended to force an emotional response." Fr. Josef nevertheless added that he understood Gibson's intention through his movie to "jolt us into recognizing the importance of Christ's work."

What I found most interesting about my telephone conversation with Fr. Josef, however, was his own story, which in several ways touches the current discussion of Anabaptist icons. First, Fr. Josef had a vivid recollection of Luykens' illustration of Dirk Willems because it was precisely the reading of Martyr's Mirror in his Amish home and school that set him upon the journey that eventually led to his becoming an Orthodox priest. What especially interested him in Martyr's Mirror were the early church fathers and their doctrinal struggles, which seemed far more important than the squabbles about "inconsequentialities" among the Amish. Inquiries about where he could learn more about these church fathers led him to the library of a Brethren seminary and Orthodox monastery nearby; and "the rest," Fr. Josef said, "is history," including his recent Ph.D. in religion at the Roman-Catholic-affiliated St. Louis University.

I understand that the purpose of Martyr's Mirror was in part to argue that this upstart, iconoclastic, renegade group called Anabaptists belonged to a direct line of martyrs going back to Christ's crucifixion. There is perhaps a little irony in the fact that this same book, centuries later, led an Anabaptist descendent to a quite different kind of church which, according to Fr. Andrew, sees itself as "a material indwelling" of Christ through an "unbroken succession" of martyrs and priests.

In addition, Fr. Josef's own history and current life speaks to the question of how one church tradition can respectfully and authentically borrow something from another, as in the creation of Anabaptist icons. Fr. Josef told me that away from home, he wears the garb of an Orthodox priest. However, he described his beard as "Amish style" and said that at home he wears Amish clothes as does his wife there and everywhere else. Fr. Josef explained that the Orthodox church has "rested lightly" on ethnic traditions, making a distinction between unchangeable "big 'T' tradition" ("faith" or "dogma"), and changeable "little 't' tradition" ("ethnicity"). Perhaps it was this syncretistic attitude that prompted him to be "not offended" by the idea of "Anabaptist icons"; he said he is sure the intention is not to "look down on" but rather "respect" the Orthodox tradition. Fr. Andrew was similarly accepting of the idea, saying "the Anabaptist tradition is reaching out for something vital, and I bless this journey."

Continuing discussion of how Fr. Joseph blends his Orthodox faith with his Amish traditions, I asked him about conscientious objection to participation in war. He said that as a priest he cannot take life, and "cannot even go hunting." Apparently that does not exclude becoming a military chaplain, however; Fr. Josef's son, now studying to be an Orthodox priest, eventually plans to become a military chaplain. Fr. Josef added that according to canon law, anyone who goes into the military is "excommunicated." When I expressed surprise, based on my admittedly limited knowledge of east European history, he said that some of the Russian soldiers returning from World War II were excommunicated for several years. He also said that the Orthodox church has maintained far more separation from the state than has the Roman Catholic church; Roman Catholic bishops wearing a ring to symbolize their temporal power, while Orthodox bishops never do. In the Orthodox church, "the government is seen as subject to Christ." Fr. Josef promised to send me information about an Orthodox peace organization concerned with nonresistance.

So what do I think of Orthodox icons after reading Dr. Lemons' fine essay and talking with two Orthodox priests I admire in many ways? Despite my appreciation for some of the theology underlying the use of icons as described above, and despite Dr. Lemons' adept explication of three specific examples, Orthodox icons themselves remain for me fascinating works of art rather than "windows" to the divine. The lush drapery in the clothes, the gilt, the halos, the emphasis on "Christ in a glorified, kingly state" (Dr. Lemons) unavoidably speak to me of power structures within and without the church which, as I read history, have too often been oppressive. Having grown up outside the community which created and transmitted it, Orthodox iconography is a visual language I do not understand, at least not as it was intended.

And what do I now think of Anabaptist icons and "the wider liturgical renewal" among some Mennonites of which they are a part, according to Dr. Juhnke's Mennolink article (2/16/94)? I think they represent a challenge that is daunting but potentially rewarding. Like these Anabaptist icons, borrowings from other traditions are likely to be forced and awkward at first; and it will not be easy to adapt them in a way that is not only respectful of the source but also authentic to the borrower. In accepting this challenge, however, we can learn much from the Orthodox belief that icons and the liturgy of which they are a part "are the work of a community of persons, living and dead, and not the work of a single artist working alone" (Dr. Lemons).

In the case of Anabaptist icons, what might this mean? First, that the image for the first Anabaptist icon was very well chosen. According to Dr. Juhnke, "the Dirk Willems image by Jan Luykens from the Martyrs Mirror is already. . . the most recognizable and widespread image among Mennonites" and perhaps Amish as well, given Fr. Josef's experience. And one might hazard a few reasons why. Most obviously, because this image points to a stand Anabaptists and many of their descendants have shared with few other churches. Willems' rescue of a pursuer whose arrest of him will eventually mean Willem's own death speaks eloquently of a commitment to kill no one, not even in self defense.

Perhaps less obviously, the Luykens' image fits an iconoclastic, "low church" tradition because it visualizes not God but the godly, and that godly is defined not so much as an unusual person as an unusual action. All this speaks of something important I, at least, have internalized from my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage: the primacy of moral imperative within an ethical system radically at odds with the surrounding social norm; a moral imperative expected equally of everyone, clergy and laity alike. As such, the Luykens' image invites imitation rather than devotion; it an instrument of education rather than worship.

Accordingly, based on what I can tell of the two images from their reproduction on the Historical Committee website, the new icon seems to me less authentically Anabaptist. It's not just that "the new image has romanticized the event," as Dr. Juhnke has pointed out, noting that "the leafless tree on the right is less stark; the clouds are less threatening; the arch and the coloration soften the angularity of the original." It's also that in the new icon there is less emphasis on narrative and action. Gone in the new image are two figures in the engraving, who by their stance and clothing seem to represent the church and civil authority which will eventually put Willems to death.

In the Luykens' engraving, Willems and his drowning pursuer are also placed within a larger scenic background, thus depicting a world which is not only more threatening but which also more clearly includes the world of the viewer; this is something that could happen here and now as well as there and then. By contrast, I find that the framing arch in the newer icon not only contains and thus limits the threat but also places it in a plane of reality separate from the viewer. This suggestion of different times and planes of reality may explain the presence on the arch of a stylized sun and moon, the meaning of which has puzzled me.

By this explication of the two images, I mean no criticism of the iconographer who adapted the Luykens' image. Doubtless he was doing exactly what one would expect--interpreting it within his own community tradition. However, I would like to suggest that in the future the Historical Committee solicit Anabaptist icons as well from what must be a significant number of excellent visual artists reared and working within Anabaptist-descended church traditions. Perhaps the committee could publish a list of the images chosen for future icons and invite submissions of contemporary adaptations. If this call resulted in more excellent submissions than can be chosen, they could form an exhibit traveling among receptive churches. The artists would gain patronage; and the churches would have some specific examples to prompt discussion of how they might integrate more of the visual into their worship and other communal life. Finally, as I myself have learned in writing this essay about Anabaptist icons, such an exhibit could stimulate within churches an even broader question of what they find essential in the religious tradition to which they belong.