Intro to Iconography – part 2

So, you’re visiting an Eastern Orthodox Church and you notice that people are coming in, approaching paintings of dead guys and gals, bowing slightly, and then kissing them.  As a Protestant, you know this must be idolatry, right?  What else could it be?

(If you missed Part 1, click here to read it)

A Lesson from Japan

While I’ve never been to Japan, my wife has an absolute love for most things Japanese.  She studies their culture, she knows the language, we watch anime together, she reads manga, etc.  The Japanese, and many countries in the East, have what is called a vertical society…and yes, that would be the opposite of a horizontal society (which is what America and many other western countries have).

In a vertical society, a great amount of respect is paid to those who are “above you” in society.  The Japanese frequently bow to one another, especially to a superior.  Their language is also completely different depending on whether they are talking to someone who is an equal or superior.  From the pronouns used to address somebody to the way verbs are conjugated, the Eastern approach to language and life is completely different.

The Japanese are also very group/society focused.  While as Americans we revere individualistic ideology, life for a Japanese person is not about the individual’s pursuits, but rather about everyone collectively.  The Eastern Orthodox concept about Church and salvation is similar, but I’ll have to save that for another blog.

Bowing, kissing, and respect

The reason the Eastern Orthodox Church is called “Eastern” is simply because of geography.  Due to their culture, they bow in courtesy to those who are in spiritual authority (and even the clergy will bow to the people to show that we are all equal in Christ).  As is still the practice after thousands of years, friends in Middle Eastern countries and even in Europe will also greet one another with a kiss or two or three.

All of that is to say that when you see someone bowing before an icon and kissing it, they are not worshiping it.  They are bowing to show their respect toward the spiritual authority of that figure, and they are kissing it as one would greet a friend.  As mentioned in my last post, to the Orthodox mind none of these saints are really dead (in an unconscious sense).  They are therefore kissing a friend who is very much alive.

Why it’s still difficult

I have to admit, I am not to the point of kissing icons when I walk into an Orthodox Parish.  I am thoroughly Western in my thinking and upbringing.  I heard two Orthodox radio hosts joking about how in order to make their Church more Western friendly, they would need to give icons backsides and arms so that we could hug the saints or shake their hands instead of bowing and kissing.

It does bring to mind the question: should I expect the ancient Eastern Orthodox Church to change for me and my society, or should I allow this ancient Christianity to change me?

Regardless of the answer, you can rest assured that the Orthodox insist that they are not worshiping the saints or Mary, and a brief cultural study easily proves their case.  More to come later on other issues and challenges regarding icons.

1 thought on “Intro to Iconography – part 2

  1. ああ、なるほど!

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