“So let it be written. So let it be done.”Pharaoh Ramses – The Ten Commandments (1956)
If you are like me, spending a year working from home, preparing your own meals, and generally lacking the usual amount of exercise has led to a bit of weight gain. To keep myself from becoming a pandemic panda, I recently purchased some low calorie frozen meals from the grocery store.
Yesterday, when preparing my lunch ration, I noticed a contradiction between the image and the written instructions. The instructions said “Leave film on product,” but the photo showed the film lifted from the product.
Without hesitation, I reasoned that the manufacturer had included the wrong photo. I left the film on the meal and put it into the microwave. Five minutes later, I removed it and cleaned up the mess it made underneath.
When dieting, a low-calorie frozen dinner is best enjoyed in slow alongside a sugar-free beverage like tea or black coffee. As I savored the only food I would eat for the next six hours, I looked again at the mistake on the empty package, seeking some form of entertainment.
“I’m going to post this on Facebook!” I thought. “How stupid of them to put the wrong photo!”
Then it occurred to me: What if the photo was correct? What if the wording was wrong?
After all, it did make a mess in the microwave. Who is to say which one was in error? Faced with a hermeneutic challenge, I chose to privilege the written words over the image. I had acted on bias.
Reviewing the evidence, I had to acknowledge the superiority of the image. The image was placed above the verbal instructions. The image showed not only the correct product, but also which side of the film should be lifted. The pictorial demonstration was more inclusive, intelligible to non-English speakers. The written word had its own error. It lacked punctuation, and when followed, likely caused the mess in the microwave.
So why did I opt for the written words? What was the source of my bias?
In the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, Pharoah and Moses face off over the future and freedom of the Hebrew slaves. With each new arbitrary and despotic edict, Pharoah says, “So let it be written! So let it be done!” What was written became history, policy, and law, the very theme of the movie.
Writing was practiced in both Egyptian and Hebrew culture, but not the same kind of writing. Egyptians wrote with pictures and hieroglyphs. Engraved and painted images of people, animals, objects, and mythological creatures communicated ideas and actions.
In contrast, the Hebrews used and still use, a phonetic writing system as I am using now, where symbols represent sounds, the component of words, spoken in strings and sentences. Although these are visible symbols, this system first appeals to the faculty of hearing, not seeing.
In the conflict represented in the film, God takes sides, dispensing plagues against Egypt, liberating the Hebrew people, and leading the Hebrews toward a promised land. In the story, Yahweh not only chooses the Hebrews, he chooses their mode of writing. The hand of God does not write the Ten Commandments in hieroglyphics. The Law is spelled, and if there is any question as to preference, the second commandment forbids practices that formed the basis of the Egyptian writing system. God chooses spelling.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”Exodus 20:4
The magical implication of our English term spelling is no accident. Written symbols connect to represent spoken sounds, and sounds words, and words sentences, and sentences into commands that evoke action at a distance.
And so it was for our religious tradition. All that is seen was created by what God spoke. Sounds, sentences, commandments spelled reality into existence, bringing cosmos out of chaos. The sounds creatures make became their earliest names. The sound of a cooing and nursing baby became the opening consonant of the word “mother” in nearly every human tongue. The Word became flesh, and in the proclamation of the Gospel, salvation came by faith, and faith by preaching and hearing.
So there I was, thousands of years later, taking sides against the Egyptians, choosing the written spelled out commandment over and against the iconographic instruction, and wiping up a mess.
I live in a society where both forms of writing are common. My smartphone has all its pictographic icons, each representing volumes of written computer commands and complex computer functions. My text messages are full of emoticons, non-verbal symbols directly communicating complex emotions, ideas, and reactions. Simple icons and symbols direct traffic, help people find restrooms, warn of hazards, and identify my place of ministry and its handicap parking place. Even though I live in a pictographic culture, when faced with a choice between image and spell, I chose the spell, the phonetically represented verbal command.
Without thinking, I had applied iconoclast Judeo-Christian bias against the “graven image” of the frozen dinner with the film already lifted. My Protestant Sola scriptura combined with Bible-belt proof-texting to lead me out of my extensive cooking experience, out of my background in science (where I knew what microwaves and steam would do to a sealed container), out of reason, out of tradition, out of experience, to reductionist, simple, obedience.
“How stupid of them to put the wrong photo,” I thought.
And so I left the film on the product even though the image was calling me to lift the film and let the steam escape during cooking. Consequently, I had a mess to clean up afterwards. I had laid aside the importance of the image, the holistic memory, the context, my own story, the example, when evaluating and interpreting a simple, spelled command.
The Christian story begins as experience. This experience is then mediated through written, spelled, phonetic text, but in this text, the forward vector of salvation history moves us toward Jesus. The Word that speaks creation into existence becomes flesh, becomes visible, becomes real, and becomes human. In theology, the appeal to our hearing becomes an appeal to our imagination. What becomes incarnate is not the spells of God, the commands of God, the proverbs of God, a curated list of commandments or other proof-texts but rather the Logos, the eternal and living Person, mind, reasoning, values, wisdom and logic of God, supreme to every recorded sound, word, spell, and sentence from God.
Why did God do this?
In his treatise, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius asserts that humans were unable or unwilling to comprehend God by three providential means, through the contemplation of nature’s beauty, through discourse with prophets, or through obedient, holy living. Sin and corruption had entered human imagination, leading humanity to create and worship idols over God.
Persisting in idolatry, they remained bound to corruption and death. To overcome this human frailty, and in boundless grace, the Word of God took on human flesh. Through his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection, Jesus frees humanity from corruption and death while simultaneously placing before our consciousness the authentic and pure original Image of God, displacing every idol and other image. The encounter with Jesus thus restores the perfect Image of God within our soul, freeing our minds to contemplate the fullness of God in eternal bliss.
What, then, was God to do? What else could He possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know Him? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image.St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation
The significance of this Incarnation is so comprehensive, so inclusive, so uncontainable, that the canon of spelled scripture devotes four separate gospel accounts in hopes of creating an evoking an authentic Image within our imagination. Even so, Christian tradition beckons us to go beyond reading in our search for Christ. Like the pilgrims to Emmaus, our hearts are warmed as we hear the Word proclaimed, but we perceive the Risen One in the breaking of the bread. Our spirituality goes beyond the memorization of the “Bible Bowl” trivia or proof-text attempts to convert the canon of scripture into a book of rules that conveniently apply to others.
Spirituality cannot be reduced to such spells. We find Christ in reflection, study, and contemplation within a context of liturgical and ministerial practices involving material items and real people, bread, wine, water, fabric, the wood of the cross, the stone of the altar, artwork, architecture, prayer, solitude, fasting, hymnody, devotions and forms of advocacy and community service. The Holy Spirit engages all our senses as we encounter and follow the risen Christ and gain experience and maturity. The Word, the Image of God, has become flesh, and our text bears witness to this. Pharoah commands that we do what is written. In Christ, what God has done becomes the subject of what is written.
Has our Christian Spirituality become an austere frozen dinner, a “Lean Cuisine” prepared and governed by a set of spells that are in conflict with the abundant and clear representation of the perfect Image of God in Christ?
When we open the Bible, are we seeking to find spells? How often do we blindly follow them, argue for them, insist upon them, even when, if we are honest, we cannot imagine Jesus speaking or acting upon such words?
In humility, we acknowledge that our imagination of Jesus will be imperfect even as it is inspired through the canon of spelled texts. At the same time, our faith and our practice seek and bear witness to a living, risen Christ, present with us. As Athanasius proclaims, the Image of God is before us.
At some point, we must learn from Pharoah’s pride and arrogance and give deference to the primacy and agency of God. God is our law-giver, but God is also our for-giver, our redeemer, our healer, our deliverer, and our Savior . In Jesus, the Image of God is before us.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our[a] joy complete.1 John 1:1-4