Welcome to The Lab at Canvas! In this session, we’re examining the topic Images of God. We’ve assembled a team of “Lab Rats” to explore this topic, each with their own unique perspective. For most of western society, our image of God was cemented by painters of the Renaissance: the grey-haired, full-bearded white guy. This image has impacted our culture in a variety of ways. Our own Lab Rats discovered a spectrum of impact from the benign to the oppressive. As people who believe in a God of love, what do we do with an image of God that has been used throughout history to promote power over love? You can begin the journey by checking out our study guide and resource list available in our dive deeper section.
We just finished up a series of community talks, and you can find the live streams of those discussions, along with all of our other videos, by clicking here.
A Message from Pastor Kirk:
Why does it matter that we explore and understand where the image of a white male God came from and how it has impacted both our religious constructs and society at large? Check out this video from Pastor Kirk, as he discusses why this was an important topic for The Lab.
Click here to start watching the series.
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Meet our team of Lab Rats! Led by our moderator, our team met four times to confront, deconstruct, explore and reframe the topic Images of God. Each of our Lab Rats bring their own unique perspectives, allowing for interesting and sometimes surprising conversations.
Click on the link above to access our Images of God study guide in pdf form. Our team of Lab Rats tackled this topic by breaking it down into four sessions: (1) Confront, (2) Deconstruct, (3) Reframe and (4) Rebuild.
Confront: Let’s start with what we know… or what we think we know… by examining what we currently believe and what our personal experience has been. What was the most present image of God that you carried in your mind growing up? Has that changed? One of the most common images of God in western culture is that of an older white man. Has the image of God as a white man impacted your life? How do you think the image of God as a white man has impacted our culture?
Deconstruct: Let’s deconstruct where our imagery of God comes from. We’ve created a resource guide (on the next tab) to help kick off your research. Our abrahamic sibling religions of Judaism and Islam both claim to be aniconistic (without imagery for God). Is that true? Can language and text create imagery without visual representation? When did images of God begin to permeate our culture? How does white male God imagery from the Renaissance continue to impact our culture today?
Reframe: Let’s reframe this topic with an exercise! Imagine God looks like a 9-year-old Syrian refugee girl. To help you with this, check out this video of Darine called Edge of the Valley (https://www.nrc.no/shorthand/stories/edge-of-the-valley/index.html). If we imagine God looks like Darine, how would our language and ideas about God change? Would we see more of a celebration of youth, femininity, and diversity in our churches and culture? How does this reimagining reveal biases about how we view God that we may not have realized before?
Rebuild: With the goal of placing love at the center of our topic, let’s rebuild how we view our understanding of and obligation to the image of God. How have our thoughts on imagery of God changed over the course of this series? With the understanding that the pervasive white male God image of western culture often promotes power over love, what is our obligation to this imagery? How can love + imagery of God be used to transform us personally and our society at large?
Click on the link above to access our Images of God resource list in pdf form. This list is a jumping off point. Share with us additional resources you found interesting and helpful throughout your journey, and let us know any reactions you have to the resources on our list.
- Video: Little Art Talks, “Absence of Representation: Aniconism/Art Terms” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfffox-cQsc
- Article: The Spiritual Life, “Aniconism in Christianity” https://slife.org/aniconism-in-christianity/
- Podcast: The Religious Studies Project, “Challenging the Normative Stance of Aniconism in the Study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam” https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/challenging-the-normative-stance-of-aniconism-in-judaism-christianity-and-islam/
Exploring Iconography in Orthodox Christianity
- Article: Orthodox Christian Information Center, “Functions of Icons” https://orthodoxinfo.com/general/icon_function.aspx
- Video: California Pilgrim, “Iconography: What is an Icon?” (This is part of a larger video series) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MklWDAU4b54
- Video: Theology Academy, “Icon Controversy: Why the Orthodox Church sanctifies icons and statues?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKCVgD5iCF4
Exploring Global Images of Jesus
- Article: The Conversation, “The long history of how Jesus came to resemble a white European” https://theconversation.com/the-long-history-of-how-jesus-came-to-resemble-a-white-european-142130
- Article: New York Times, “Searching for a Jesus Who Looks More Like Me” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/arts/design/jesus-christ-image-easter.html
- Article: Church Times, “Global Images of Christ: Challenging Perceptions at Chester Cathedral” https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/8-october/books-arts/visual-arts/global-images-of-christ-challenging-perceptions-at-chester-cathedral
- Article: Africa: St. Patrick’s Missions, “Through Nomadic Eyes: Stations of the Cross in Lodwar Cathedral, Kenya” https://www.wischik.com/irene/cross/
Exploring the Impact of a White Male God
- Article: Forbes, “Thinking of God as a White Man Contributes to Bias Says New Study” https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2020/06/10/thinking-of-god-as-a-white-man-contributes-to-bias-says-new-study/?sh=55d4dad153e5
- Article: U.S. Catholic, “God is beyond race and gender. Our sacred art should be too.” https://uscatholic.org/articles/202009/god-is-beyond-race-and-gender-its-time-our-sacred-art-is-too/
- Video: Jen Hatmaker (podcast), “Who Says God is a White Man? Finding Ourselves in the Divine with Dr. Christena Cleveland” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vduD1CI6ktQ
- Academic Article: Sage Journals, “Women, Personhood and the Male God: A Feminist Critique of Patriarchal Concepts of God in View of Domestic Abuse” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0966735019859471
Exploring Contemporary Alternative Art Expressions
- Article: Art & Theology, “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley” https://artandtheology.org/2016/08/31/christian-themed-portraits-by-kehinde-wiley/
- Article: Design Indaba, “Harmonia Rosales is creating new narratives around the classic art paintings” https://www.designindaba.com/articles/creative-work/harmonia-rosales-creating-new-narratives-around-classic-art-paintings
- Artist Series: Ettakay Art, “Mother in the Desert Series” https://www.ettakay.art/mother-in-the-desert-series
As a creative exercise, the Lab Rats were asked to create their own expression of the image of God. Some embraced the exercise with enthusiasm while others approached the exercise with a bit of contempt. Those that generally reject an image of God found this to be a particularly challenging process. In the end, our Lab Rats created some unique and meaningful pieces. Try creating your own artistic expression of the image of God. Share your art work with us. We’d love to see what you create!
“Keep Looking” by Amy Chan
The background for this piece is a cosmic sky. It represents the beauty, vastness, and unknowability of God. Above that, we have a tree with branches stretching to the top of the canvas and roots stretching to the bottom. The branches represent the strength of God supporting us and lifting us above the false claims of this world to find the truth of who we are, while the roots ground us in our faith. This is a tree of life, but it is also a family tree. In the middle, we find representative faces for every gender, race, age, ability. All are God’s children, and all are made in the image of God. To drive that point home, there is a mirror for anyone looking at the art to find themselves as a member of this holy family and reflected in the image of God. But what is the true nature of God? Love. Love in all its glory, embracing the beautiful complexity and diversity of humanity.
“Golden Radiance” by Michelle Raitt
Michelle uses color to represent God in her painting. Drawing from Byzantine culture, she uses gold paint to represent heavenly space. She creates circular lines to express the infinite quality of God, and she adds texture to give dimensionality to the art and represent the incredible expansion of God in the world. Remembering the lyrics “There is nowhere on Earth I can escape you / Even the darkness is radiant in your sight” from the song “Oh God, You Search Me,” Michelle includes a section of darkness perforated by golden light. For Michelle, our resident art historian, this turned out to be a significant assignment. It turns out that for all her studies in art, she had never actually tried her own hand at painting. She was surprised to find empowerment and joy as she placed color on her canvas, leading her to consider how God must have felt creating the world.
“I AM WHO I AM” by Tan Tran
Tan confessed that creating an image of God was a particularly challenging assignment for him. His first desire was to return a blank canvas, claiming he has no image for God. In the end, he drew inspiration from Exodus 3:14. God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Using duct tape, Tan created and overlapped letters on the canvas spelling out I AM WHO I AM, creating a unique geometric pattern.
“YAHWEH of All In/Through Nature” by Madison Thomsen
In this piece, Madison presents two images that have been consistent for them when thinking about the image of God: a cloud and a burning bush. Madison connects deeply with the burning bush as an image of God on an individual level, just as God connected with Moses. They have painted the flame similar to that of a candle or match that can often symbolize illumination or discovery. The image of the cloud, meanwhile, represents God on a communal level. In Exodus, God used a cloud to guide the Israelites during the day as they wandered the desert. Within the cloud is the Hebrew word Yahweh, the name of God.
“Imago Dei” by James Mills
For James, the image of God is directly tied to Genesis 1:27. Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them; female and male, God made them. James uses the hands from Michelangelo’s well-known Creation of Adam to visually cue us in to this moment of creation. We see all people represented in the colorful human shapes above those hands. Between the hands we find a mirror, allowing any viewer of the art to see themselves reflected within the piece. It illustrates that every person is made in the image of God. The background depicts colorful stained-glass, placing this conversation about the image of God within a communal church setting.
To listen to our Lab Rats discuss what it was like to be in the creative hot seat and learn more about their process, check out their videos in our media library.
In the fall of 2022, our Lab Rats got together to explore the image of God. Their journey is recorded in a 4-episode video series. In May of 2023, we followed up with community discussions. The live streams of those discussions are also available to view. To explore all of our videos, head to our Media Library. You can also access all of our videos through our YouTube Channel.Images of God – Media Library The Lab – YouTube Channel
Join the Conversation
We want to hear from you! How have you been exploring the images of God? Do you have any thoughts on the questions and opinions shared on this topic? Did you create your own artistic expression of God? Share your ideas, research, personal stories and creative expressions with us! Join the conversation on social media with #TheLabatCanvas and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.