Snapshots of God

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Ex. 20:4)

For a window into the popular imagination you need look no farther than the reading matter on display at any supermarket checkout. You’ll see a smattering of women’s magazines but mostly magazines and tabloids devoted to celebrities: celebrity entertainers, celebrity tycoons-turned-entertainer, celebrity entertainers-turned-politician and even celebrity criminals. I have reached a stage in life when many celebrities are my children’s age or younger, and I often don’t recognize them. But then it is obvious these publications are not aimed at people like me, since they assume I have a first-name acquaintance with the likes of J. Lo, Brad and Jen, Paris, Scott and Laci, Oprah and Regis.

It is certainly no coincidence that the term “celebrity,” as applied to individuals, did not come into general usage until after the invention of photography in the mid-19th century. In On Photography, Susan Sontag noted “there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects.” How much greater is that tendency when the images are mass-produced on album covers, fan magazines or TV, much less blown up to gigantic proportions on a billboard or movie screen?

In an article on the invention of photography, a French journal noted in 1839 that the theatrical set designer and diorama painter Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had developed a process for capturing the fixed image of objects “which may be carried away from the presence of those objects like a picture or an engraving.” The daguerreotypist who accompanied Commodore Perry to Japan in 1854 had difficulty recruiting willing subjects because of the local belief that the soul might leave a person’s body and cling to its representation. Before dismissing such notions as mere superstition, we should take note of the strange psychic dislocation that occurs among some celebrities who treat their public persona as a thing apart from their "real" selves.

I wonder what the ancient Hebrews would have thought of our supermarket shrines to the gods and goddesses of pop culture. The Israelites, of course, were strictly forbidden from worshipping graven images. They believed that theirs was a living God, in contrast to the stone idols worshipped by the Canaanites. The commandment against idolatry extended to the likeness of anything in creation and especially to images of God himself. As much as the prophets railed against flirtations with the Canaanite deities, no representation of their own God has ever been found.

The God to whom we are subject refuses to be objectified. There can be no separation of image from object, because there is no object, only the essence in which our own being is contained. To try to represent the living God with a fixed image, or even a fixed idea, is to misrepresent him. Susan Sontag once observed that photographic images stand in the same essentially inaccurate relation to the real world as stills do to the movies. Much the same can be said about our snapshots of God.

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