Discipleship, Jesus, and Iconography


February 13, 2009 by J. Madson

NT Wright, in his work Jesus and the Victory of God, makes the highly relevant point that much of our Christian worship today is more iconography than actual worship of the individual Jesus. It seems we worship a Jesus who is only loosely connected to his actual sayings and deeds and worshiped primarily for his benefits. Wright believes that our theology must be coupled with the historical Jesus. From my own perspective I have noticed a disturbing trend in Christian theology to focus on the benefits we receive from Jesus over any actual demand to be like him let alone grapple with the question of how we lived and why he lived. For example, we have adopted, consciously or not, the early reformers’ emphasis on the benefits of Christ’s works: ‘this is to know Christ, to know his benefits’ (Melanchthon, 1521). If Christians are serious in their desire to follow Jesus, it follows that they should be serious in discovering what he was passionate about.

Wright emphasizes that

“The point of having Jesus at the centre of a religion or a faith is that one had Jesus: not a cypher, a strange silhouetted Christ figure, nor yet an icon, but the one Jesus the New Testament writers know, the one born in Palestine in the reign of Augustus Caesar, and crucified outside of Jerusalem in the reign of his successor Tiberius. Christianity appeals to history, to history it must go. The recognition that the answers we may find might change our views, or even our selves, cannot and must not prevent us from embarking on the quest.” 10-11

The alternative is to end up with Jesus as an icon. Wright describes this in the following manner:

“The Divine Saviour to whom they pray has only a tangential relationship to first-century Palestine, and they intend to keep it that way. He can, it seems, be worshiped, but if he ever actually lived he was a very strange figure, clothed in white while all around wore drab, on his face a perpetual faraway expression of pious solemnity.” 9-10

In short, there is a danger that Christ can become an icon. A sort of magical Jesus much like religious icons or even amulets which offers us healing whether physical, spiritual, or otherwise but has little connection to the historical Jesus. This in no way means that Jesus did not perform acts of healing nor does it mean that there is not an atonement aspects to Christianity. Something we can debate at another time. This is more of an observation on how we approach Jesus and Christianity.

Wright summarizes and parodies the reformers view which has become common today:

“All this culminates, of course, in the event to which the gospels really do point, the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is to be understood not as the execution of an awkward figure who refused to stop rocking the first-century Jewish or Roman boat, but as the saving divine act whereby the sins of the world were dealt with once and for all. This divine act, however, did not have very much to do with what went before. The fact that the gospels reached their climax with the death of Jesus seemed to have little to do with any significance to be drawn from his life, except that the conflict he engendered by preaching about love and grace was the proximate reason for his death, which the redeemer god then ‘counted’ in a redemptive scheme which had nothing to do with that historical reason. The reformers had very thorough answers to the question ‘why did Jesus die?’; they did not have nearly such good answers to the question ‘why did Jesus live?’ Their successors to this day have not often done any better. But the question will not go away. If the only answer is ‘to give some shrewd moral teaching, to live an exemplary life, and to prepare for sacrificial death’, we may be forgiven for thinking it a little lame. It also seems… quite untrue to Jesus’ own understanding of his vocation and work.” 13-14

This view, as Wright explains, is not only inconsistent with the historical Jesus, but creates a Jesus whose purpose seems more in line with a sacrificial animal than an actual individual with a vocation or work to perform. It disconnects Jesus’ life, where we encounter his actual words, deeds, and his vision of God’s kingdom, and instead gives us an icon. It is this very logic which has allowed groups throughout history to use Jesus for their various political and social schemes which in reality bear little resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth. Whether it was the crusades of centuries past or the Nazi’s use of Jesus, all of these attempts have shared a fundamental flaw in that they de-emphasized Jesus’ jewishness, sayings, deeds, life, (ie the historical Jesus) and instead created a religious icon disconnected or at best loosely connected to an actual individual. It is not that Christianity should not or does not address social or political issues, but that the foundation for such must be found in serious historical and theological study of Jesus himself.

If we do not engage ourselves in such an endeavor we are instead left with what Wright describes as a contrivance and a lame theology.

“For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin (at any time in human history, perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later…. The fact that, in the midst of these events, Jesus actually said and did certain things, which included giving wonderful moral teachings and annoying some of his contemporaries, functions within this sort of orthodox scheme merely as convenience… His ministry and his death are thus loosely connected. The force of this is lost, though, when the matter is thought through. If the main purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to die on the cross, as the outworking of an abstracted atonement-theology, it starts to look as though he simply took on the establishment in order to get himself crucified, so that the abstract sacrificial theology could be put into effect. This makes both his ministry and death look like sheer contrivances.” 13-14

I hope to follow up this post by looking at the actual sayings, deeds, and life of Jesus and to see what, if any, relationship they have to not just personal evil but systemic evil. In other words, what was Jesus passionate about? I beleive that only by fully understanding his aims and goals for society, as well as individuals, can we then properly understand why he died. I also believe, following Wright, that to history we must go even if it means changing our views and our selves.


11 thoughts on “Discipleship, Jesus, and Iconography

  1. Kris J says:

    I think this is a good point and worth pursuing. It seems to me that within mormonism there is a similar trend of making icons of church leaders and other prominent people (men) in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. This also can apply to other faiths who have made icons out of popes, Buddha, Mohammed, etc. and non-religious social movements (Che Guevara, Darwin, Lincoln, Einstein, etc.) It seems we humans love a good icon.

  2. J. Madson says:

    Kris J,

    Thanks for your comment. I think the icon worship you point out is unfortunately true in many cases. It is perhaps even more insidious because there is no reason why leaders or prominent people in the bible should be icons in the first place. I dont mind learning from individuals and modeling off their strengths but we take it even farther and act as if they are infallible and participate in a form of hagiography or pseudo worship.

    Arguably, from a Christian point of view, the scriptures and even church leaders do not provide eternal life but should point towards the true source. The problem with icon worship of Jesus is slightly different than regular individuals in that there are, in my opinion, good reasons to follow him but we generally reduce him to an icon and remove the things that he felt passionate about. The historical Jesus is very different than the one we often hear about on sunday.

  3. Forest Simmons says:

    I think that the main problem here is that the work of the atonement of Jesus Christ is not well understood by Latter-Day Saints (or anybody else).

    Nibley tells us that “at-one-ment” is not just a folk derivation or mnemonic of “atonement” as I assumed from the time I first heard it as a child. Rather that parsing is the precise root etymology of the word.

    The Latin word, “expiation,” that is often used interchangeably has a different root meaning, and should (in my humble opinion) be taken only as a metaphor of the atonement, like the words “ransom,” and “redemption.” The expiation via scape goats in the old testament was a symbol of the atonement, but should not be understood as accurately describing the means of accomplishing it.

    The closest word to “atonement” that can be translated easily into other languages is “reconciliation,” which is almost as good.

    The atonement is the work of knitting hearts together in unity love. As chapter 37 of Ezekiel makes clear the reuniting of Ephraim and Judah (and their records) is part of the same great work as reuniting the foot bones to the leg bones and the body to the spirit. These are all part of the restoration of all things spoken of by all the holy prophets since the world began.

    I wince every time anybody speaks of the atonement as an event. True there was a sequence of physically and spiritually painful events which culminated with Jesus absolute commitment, sealed with his blood, to head up the atonement effort. But that atonement, which includes the restoration of all things, including returning polluted earth to its paradisiacal glory.is still in progress.

    In a sense we can say it is done, in the same sense that we say a man is as good as his word. We can have absolute confidence that the work will not be pronounced finished until all the works of his hands are saved with the maximum salvation that they can enjoy.

    In particular, we humans will be restored to our best selves after all the reforming that we can do. As Moroni said, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.”

    The hardest work is perfecting hearts. There is no greater miracle.

    Just as the whole human family was recruited in the preparation of this planet for human habitation, we are all invited to do all we can in the work of the atonement. The buck stops at Jesus, but he knows how to make participation in the work enjoyable, and so he knows he can count on lots of help. Those who catch the spirit of this work are of one heart and one mind, and are willing to commit their all to assisting their fellow creatures in their progress towards fulfilling the measure of their existence.

    In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus had a clear (hence extremely painful) vision of the gigantic mess that he was to be in charge of cleaning up, including all of the broken families, all of the broken bodies, all of the polluted aquifers, all of the extinctions of species, and everything in between. He was to take responsibility for all of clean up, repair, and restoration in the same way that the parents in a family take responsibility for the things that their children break and all the messes that they make.

    For this reason “father” is a much better metaphor than “redeemer” for the Christ. A redeemer is someone who pays the ransom to get something out of hock. This metaphor has been used so much that we tend to take it literally and think that Jesus had to pay (to whom or what?) in infinite currency of pain to ransom us (from whom or what?).. That is a very poetic way of expressing how much Jesus cares for us, but it misrepresents the “mechanics” of the atonement.

    I use the word “mechanics” advisedly. The Lord works by means. Reality based religion requires us to recognize this fact, attested to by prophets both modern and ancient. Miracles are divine interventions that are totally in accordance with the laws of the universe. The atonement is not magic. It involves the use of time, energy and intelligence in restoring things to the way they can and should be restored according to the wisdom, mercy, and justice of the Lord.

    It may be somewhat painful for us to commit to this same work when we understand the enormity of it. But the Lord has said that taking upon us his yoke is ultimately easier than the alternative. Like the yoke that unites two oxen in sharing a burden, the yoke of Christ unites us with him.

    His great intercessory prayer was that we could become one with him and the father as they are one with each other. That is the highest goal of the at-one-ment.

  4. J. Madson says:


    I agree that atonement theology is part of the problem. We have adopted many forms such as ransom theory or penal substitution which portray a Jesus as little more than a sacrificial body being offered to god, some cosmic law, or worse.

    So in part I agree that there needs to be a major readjustment in how we view the atonement. I also think that we need to realize that Jesus’ life was just as much part of his vocation and goals as were Gethsemane and the cross.

  5. Forest Simmons says:

    Jesus worked on the atonement with all of his heart, might, mind, and strength throughout his pre-mortal life as well as his mortal ministry. I believe that at the end of mortality (after experiencing things first hand in the flesh) he had the chance to reaffirm his premortal foreordination and continue with his responsibility of heading up the atonement for more millenia, or to call it quits. He chose to continue because he was willing to submit his will to the Father’s will, and besides, if he didn’t do it, who would?

  6. Grégoire says:

    This has been such an interesting article to follow. Thanks to J and all the contributors.

    I think approaching literary characters assumes a certain measure of displacement. We all write ourselves into the text, even when we try not to.

    I’ve always seen Jesus as a sort of cross between Ernest Everhard and Abbie Hoffman. Seems like a fellow with a sense of humor and a gift for guerrilla theatre, who was into ‘sticking it to the man’ in his own way.

  7. Forest Simmons says:

    This is such a thought provoking thread that I have to give it one more go,
    especially considering that my original comment could (to the casual observer) seem somewhat tangential to the topic.

    As Paul said, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against
    principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this
    world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

    Jehovah/Jesus, Michael/Adam, and the rest of us have been in this struggle from the foundation of this world. The same struggle has taken place on other worlds. Do not LDS Temple ceremonies and ceremonies of Tibetan Monks still have martial symbols that might be echoes of an epic struggle reminiscent of Jack London’s novel,”The Iron Heel?”

    Zion is supposed to be a place that is made safe (through cooperative effort) from the ravages of chaos and evil. The universe has plenty of danger in the form of chaos, by which I mean harsh, random vagaries of the elements, as well as evil, by which I mean harm inflicted by intentional agents. Both have been around for an infinite amount of time. Compared to eternity, the twenty billion years of the orthodox cosmologist and the seven thousand years of the orthodox Christian are equally insignificant*.

    “If you could hie to Kolob
    In the twinkling of an eye,
    And then continue onward
    With that same speed to fly,
    Do you think that you could ever,
    Through all eternity,
    Find out the generation
    Where gods began to be?”
    (Hymn #284)

    The priesthood has no beginning of days (that standard man could count), but was there perhaps a time in the remote past when in some corner of the universe some primeval bunch of “wobblies” finally got the upper hand over the forces of greed without succumbing to the impulse to exercise unrighteous dominion themselves, and established an oasis of peace and justice like Melchisedec and King Benjamin’s father Mosaiah.did on a smaller scale eons later?

    Did they then establish an order and system for expanding and perpetuating that peace and justice to greater portions of the infinite universe, finally approaching our locale in the last dozen billion years?

    Heaven is the epitome of Zion. Not only is it a place of refuge from chaos and evil, but it is the epitome of one heart, one mind, and all things in common: D&C 84: 38 “And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.”

    The “at-one-ment” of Christ is a program for promulgating the principles of the heavenly zion so that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Note how frequently Jesus began a parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven [or kingdom of god] is like …”

    Magnanimous, liberal Jesus was visibly saddened by the small minded views of his contemporaries. He had a lot of patience for those willing to try and get it, but he had little patience for the self satisfied hypocrites that were only interested in maintaining their self serving, provincial doctrines.

    As Thomas More and John the Baptist found out, if you rise to prominence and resist sustaining the powerful in their power, you do so at the peril of your life. Even in our pluralistic society, Martin Luther King, Jr. was just too outspoken to be allowed a continued voice. In the milieu surrounding Jesus, making any kind of waves was certain suicide.

    Imagine Jesus trying to expand discourse by saying, “In times of old they said …, but I say unto you …” In other words, “Let me give you the big picture. Let’s think about how it should be in a society where a decent man would want to live, etc. Tradition has its place, but let’s see if we can make some progress, too.”



    *Nobody supposes that the life Captain Cook found on the Hawaiian islands evolved from scratch in the few thousand years since the Hawaiian islands had poked their volcanic peaks above the level of the sea and the sterile lava had cooled. Everybody knows that seeds and creatures were brought there from other islands by the sea, the wind, birds, human migrations, etc. It is equally ridiculous to suppose that life evolved from scratch in a few billion years on this planet. Seeds and creatures were brought here by human migration, as well as hardy spores in intergalactic dust. Life has always existed in the universe. Any other hypothesis is provincial in the extreme. Provincial hypotheses about the cosmos have always been bowled over in short order. If there has always been life, and if there is any kind of incremental advancement at all over time, there must be infinitely advanced creatures. The good ones, like Jesus, we can call gods, and the bad ones, like Lucifer, we can call devils.

  8. J. Madson says:


    I appreciate your comments. I dont have much of a response but certainly thought provoking

  9. […] I have emphasized before, this failure to participate in atonement and instead see Jesus as only a substitution creates an […]

  10. Forest Simmons says:

    Here’s a thought provoking article that looks at Jesus’ life and message from a social justice point of view:


    Here’s the start of the article …

    Up Against the Empire
    Celebrating the Rebel Jesus

    “Tell me, say – what kind of man this Jesus is, my lord?”

    – Buffy Ste.-Marie, “Ananais”

    The media distorted parts of Jesus’ message right from the start. The Gospels, and the first generation of Jesus’ followers, effectively altered or hid his more radical teachings, and what has been preached from a million pulpits and that we still get from many today is a gross distortion. Jesus was not preoccupied with individual “sin” but with systemic injustice, in opposition to the commercializing empire of his time. The historical Jesus disclosed by contemporary scholarship appears to be fundamentally the same as the Jesus who is preached and practiced in the Catholic Worker movement, for example. And the parallels between his conflict with Rome and our own with imperial America are striking indeed.

    Then as now, the maldistribution of wealth was quite severe, with peasants comprising the bulk of the population …

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