Guest lecturer explores artistic representations of God's body
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In his guest lecture on Feb. 5 Professor Brent Strawn from Emory University elaborated on ancient artistic divine bodies and the separation between real, divine bodies, and the represented ones.
These artistic representations are often small, while in reality, divine beings are assumed - from ancient textual descriptions - as giant, and cosmic in scale. People have depicted many different versions of God’s body over the years, even though the second commandment warns against it. The second commandment states, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image."
Strawn illuminated the fact that there are many misrepresentations of God. For example, in many children’s stories, the scene of God’s backside being shown to Moses is depicted as extremely literal and even humorous. It paints God as human-like, and small, not at all resembling his true nature.
Dr. Strawn challenged the idea of viewing these representations as violations of the second commandment by stating that we don’t actually know what this law is specifically about and what it applies to. Cultural context is incredibly important when deciphering laws of the Old Testament. Perhaps, the interpretation should not be applied to all art displays. In Moses’ time, things like the golden calf were idols that God was warning against. The art which represents divine beings might be taken less literally, and less offensively since many pieces simply resemble certain aspects of the nature of the divine beings.
Strawn structured his lecture upon four main points: The matter of comparison, the like and unlike of the actual deities, and the “is” and “is-not-ness” of metaphors in relation to these comparisons; the fuzziness of the metaphorical quality in question; metaphorical awareness, God’s body carrying over into the representations; metaphors and cognition which shape the way we speak of things through thinking.
His ideas on metaphors brought up some interesting points. These images of God, and other “deities,” may be metaphoric, or representational of their nature rather than an illustration of their true image. Strawn mentioned the importance of not confusing the infinite God with a finite image. Rather, he says, we should use the Bible as a locus of religious attention towards the infinite God. There is, as he states, infinite potential within the Bible. Whereas art, can often be finite and limited to our interpretations.
He says to use icons in the right way, as a means of describing certain aspects of God, but not in a way that would bring us under the judgement of the second commandment. The artistic representations of the divine bodies communicate something more material, such as nature, symbols, etc. The fascinating points Strawn touched on in his lecture brought much consideration and reflection on ancient artistic divine representations of deities.