Aesthetics Without Meaning — When Western Christians Play With Icons

If you become an Orthodox Christian, invariably people will excitedly tell you about their love of your Church with a kind of jealousy, hoping that you’ll approve. “My theology is more eastern than western!”, which apparently just means they don’t like rules. I’ve even met an Episcopalian who bragged to me that he was so Orthodox that he even believed in purgatory.

But all that is just the harmless quirk of belonging to the latest Christian fad. What bothers me more is when they — and I truly hate using this word — appropriate our aesthetics, butcher the meaning, and then assume we’ll admire their scant bit of interaction with us.

Like the Pentecostal megachurch pastor who went on a trip to Israel and bought a “Greek Orthodox stole” and wore it to church the next week. Or the relative who goes to Venice and says you would love the Church of San Marcos because of all the (stolen in brutal force) Byzantine art. Or the Catholic with the cartoonish icon of Jesus with his heart in his hand made from a gnostic group.

I don’t really get offended at things I can ignore, but on some level it is just a little annoying. The purpose in aesthetics is the meaning assigned to them. They don’t exist as an end in themselves. The distinctions in Orthodox Christianity that give rise to the name itself are not pretty pictures or cultural differences.

While symbols constantly change meaning based on context, to rob a religious symbol of all original meaning in a bland ecumenical gesture and then declare your Vatican II Catholic (or sodomite Episcopalian, or erotic Jesus Pentecostal) church is the same thing is rather insulting. We’re not disagreeing over ketchup and mustard. We’re disagreeing about the nature of reality and the way to heaven.

Assuming that I would find San Marcos interesting is an insult to me as an individual, because it assumes I only believe what I do because it looks pretty and not because I have integrity and truly believe in my beliefs.

Oddly enough, the Catholics’ warm gush of ecumenism and insistence that reunification is just around the corner is more disrespectful than if than if they just dismissively called us heretics. Though I suppose that’s half our fault for lying to them about it.

But sure, let the Catholics have icons. I don’t really care. In twenty years they’ll get bored and move on to something else.

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