Cool Hand Luke: From Icon to Meme (and back again)

28 February 2012

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

16th C work showing Luke creating icon of Mary

When most think of Luke, they think of the ancient physician who wrote a biography about Jesus.  But most don’t think of Luke as anartist.  In fact, Luke is counted as the patron saint of artists.

According to the writings of the early church, Luke was one of the first people to paint an “icon” of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  What is an “icon?”  The Latin word eikon simply means “image.”  The early church didn’t have cameras.  They didn’t have photograph albums, and they couldn’t “tag” Jesus on Facebook.  Icons were simple, stylized portraits used for Christian worship.  They mostly were portraits of Jesus and related saints, as well as painting narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

They were also highly symbolic: the color red, for example, was usually used to convey

“Pantocrator,” 6th C. portrait of Jesus. Note the two fingers representing His two natures

humanity.  Jesus’ two fingers were meant to indicate His two natures: fully God, fully human.  So if you had a basic understanding of the symbols and traditions of ancient iconography, you could find a rich meaning in the symbols of the early Church.


I say “if,” because as we fast forward to the present day, we realize that the concept of “image” has become completely unglued.  Beauty is assumed to be in the eye of the beholder, and along with it come goodness and truth.

We have replaced the icons of old with the memes of the temporary.  A “meme,” for those not tech-savvy, is basically a cultural fad.  It can refer to a viral video, a cartoon, a picture, a phrase, or anything else that can easily be passed around Facebook and the blogosphere.

In his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the arrival of television, the combination of sound and image, as contributing to a breakdown in critical reasoning.  And so, too, memes have shaped the way we view and interpret the world around us.

A simply contrast between an “icon” and a “meme” shows us the way that our way of using image to make sense of the world has shifted radically:

Static/unchangingFluid/constantly changing
Communicate truthInterpret truth
Convey purposePromote play


Author and professor Barry Taylor writes:

“People would rather be perceived as cool than good; it is a postmodern virtue…Surprisingly, or not so perhaps, Jesus remains cool.  It’s just his official earthly representation – the church – that has been deemed ‘uncool.’…The perception that in spite of any ‘religious affiliations’ Jesus remains cool and is a subject of interest in the postmodern matrix extends to a continuing number of publications, books, and magazines devoted to wresting Jesus away from the authority and confines of the Christian church.…This is theology with a larger populist intention, the ultimate goal being the ‘saving’ of Jesus, to quote a recent title.  Saving Jesus from what exactly?  The stultifying, smothering confines of the church, and particularly the fundamentalists or conservatives, who, the consensus seems to say, have done Jesus a grave injustice by making him out to be just like them – uptight, overly religious in the pejorative sense, lacking a sense of humor, and disconnected from the way things really are.”  (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 153)

The end result?  A steady stream of cultural representations of Jesus.  While the icons of old conveyed Jesus as He was, the memes of today say more about the person who created them.  Some are serious, some are intended to just be jokes.

We have Madonna, who “crucified” herself for one of her concert performances, saying later that “we all need to be Jesus in our time.”

The song “Personal Jesus,” originally by Depeche Mode, has been covered by several other artists, including the dark imagery of Marilyn Manson’s video.

Kanye West did not one, but three different music videos for “Jesus Walks,” where classic imagery was blended with various settings of human need and depravity.

Urban outfitters has made quite a profit selling “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts.

South Park portrays Jesus as a kind but typically ineffective character on a call-in advice show.

The film Dogma gave birth to the “Buddy Christ” image, used by the church in the film to make Jesus more appealing to the masses.

And if anyone is looking to get their pastor a gift, look no further than the Jesus action figure.


The point is that we live in a world of great spiritual confusion.  Like Theophilus, people have a basic idea about who Jesus was, but are unsure of their feelings toward the church.

In our world, the church has unfortunately shied away from clear teaching on Jesus in the name of political correctness.  We prefer teachings on social activism, happy marriages, and financial advice.  The result is that Jesus is increasingly being defined by those outside the walls rather than within them.

Icons were born from the idea that just as God became man, so too could truth became solid reality through artistic expression.  But even after Jesus returned to the Father after the resurrection, the Body of Christ was still present on earth in the form of His followers.  The Church has the great privilege of showing the world who Jesus is in both word and deed.


I like Luke because as both physician and painter, he possessed both the sharp mind of a scientist and the tender heart of an artist.  The magnificence of this series is that as we move through Luke’s gospel, we’ll see him paint a new and incredible picture of Jesus, watching his brush move across the canvas as we turn each page of his account.

So we hope you enjoy this series.  Be sure to check back frequently to interact more as we grow together.

28 February 2012

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

“We rightly equate silence with isolation. Both are enemies of God’s grand design.”

Human beings, as we’ve just noted, bear God’s image.  We “take after” God, so to speak—much as we might say that a child “takes after” his earthly father.  It means that we share with God some aspect of his character, his nature, even his gifts.  In the immediate context of Genesis, this means two things.  Because man bears the image of a Creator, we share in his capacity for creativity.  And because we bear the image of God’s divine community (Father, Son, and Spirit), we share in his capacity for relationship.

Or perhaps “capacity” is too clinical a term for such elemental gifts.  For these qualities are indeed divine gifts, just as human language likewise has its origin in God himself.  In his recent work on the clarity of Scripture, Mark Thompson notes that “God is himself the source of human language.  He is the first speaker and invests language with a deep significance for generation and nourishing personal relationships.”

If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice.  It is through language that the human needs for creativity and relationship are brought together. Surely writing is not the only means of human communication, but there is a uniqueness to the craft that cannot be so easily snuffed out by a so-called “post-literate” world.  When we write, we write to engage the world—or at least our small corner of it.  We write in order to hone our God-given skills of creativity and make a meaningful contribution to humanity’s collective imagination.  We write because it’s in our blood, in our hands, in our soul.

“If language is a divine gift, writing becomes a liturgical practice.”

Christianity says that God’s Word shaped God’s original creation, but God’s Word likewise takes prominence in God’s new creation.  “In the beginning was the Word,” John tells us—cribbing lines from the opening pages of Genesis.  The Word of God, once confined to the page now takes on human flesh in the person of Jesus.  Christianity calls this the incarnation, meaning that in Jesus God literally became a human being to walk among us, to share life with us, and to give his life that we might live.

Writing is part of the way we engage and share the gospel narrative.  Writing is therefore an incarnational practice, a means by which the story of God is translated into the various languages of human culture.

Living the gospel narrative means not only “take and read” but also “write and give.”  Every voice is different.  Every voice matters.

“Living the gospel narrative means not only ‘take and read’ but also ‘write and give.'”

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