Sunday, October 16, 2011

What's a picture of Jesus?

As we approach the Christmas season, the propriety of depicting Jesus has come up again–in special reference to John MacArthur. I’m going to comment on one particular aspect of this debate.

What makes a picture a picture of Jesus? After all, one of the common objections to depicting Jesus is that we don’t know what he looked like. But that objection is somewhat paradoxical, is it not? If ostensible pictures of Jesus don’t resemble Jesus, then in what sense are they picturing Jesus?

Compare it to a photograph of myself. What makes that a depiction of me? I can think of two things:

i) It was actually taken of me. I really am the person in the photograph. I sat for that portrait (as it were).

ii) On a related note, it corresponds to what I look like (at the time the photo was taken). It’s a representational depiction of my actual appearance. There’s a direct correlation between me and the photographic image.

Indeed, that’s one reason our society requires photo I.D. for various transactions. To prove your true identity.

Yet that’s the polar opposite of why some Christians object to depicting Jesus. So in which sense is an ostensible picture of Jesus picturing Jesus?

In that case it’s not objective but subjective. Symbolic. Psychological. And that has two aspects:

i) Artistic intent. The artist intends to depict Jesus.

ii) The viewer understands the picture to be a representation of Christ.

But that’s complicated.

Suppose a Renaissance painter uses an Italian male model to pose for his “picture of Jesus.” Is that a picture of Jesus? Or is that a picture of the man who posed for the painting? The depiction is literally a portrait of some Italian dude from the 16C. A picture of someone who isn’t Jesus, that’s meant to signify Jesus.

Likewise, artistic recognition is culturally conditioned. You need to know the code. If you grow up in an Eastern Orthodox country, you recognize iconographic depictions of Jesus. But if you were an artistically illiterate tourist, you might not realize who it stands for.

Or take the Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ.” Is that a picture of Jesus? In a society where lots of folks are unchurched, you could do one of those man-on-the-street interviews, showing the picture to random pedestrians, and I expect many of them would shrug their shoulders or name some pop musician. Is that Jesus–or is that Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star?

Is it still a picture of Jesus if you don’t know who it’s meant to represent? And, remember that this is different from a photograph of someone you don’t know.

To be a picture of Jesus for the viewer, the viewer must mentally transfer or reassign the image to Jesus. A psychological projection. A fictitious predication. 

31 comments:

  1. one of the common objections to depicting Jesus is that we don’t know what he looked like.
    Correct.
    So in which sense is an ostensible picture of Jesus picturing Jesus?
    The conclusion is that it is not. It's not really possible to accurately portray Jesus in his human form. So perhaps the best conclusion is that we don't need pictures of Jesus. So let us do without them entirely. We'll be better off for it. Added benefit: There's no longer any wonder as to whether or not we might be breaking the second commandment. Win win.

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  2. If the picture isn't picturing Jesus, how does that violate the 2nd commandment?

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  3. From my view, there is another, more important test that hasn't be raised in here.

    It is the "love" test.

    A story that should help define it in a common sense that points to the Apostle writing about offending others of weak Faith.

    A friend was drinking publicly an apple cider in a bottle. It looked like a beer he was drinking. A member of his Church fellowship saw it. He struggles with alcohol addiction and seeing his Pastor drinking what he thought was a beer went out and got drunk.

    Once my friend heard about it, he resolved to not drink any bottle of anything in a public place remotely looking like a beer.

    When you know your Christian brother has a problem with the issue being raised in here and you go ahead and publish an Artist's picture of what Jesus may look like, because you don't have a problem with doing it, it speaks to me just what kind of Spirit motivates you to do that?

    These issue are not matters for outsiders. They are matters between brethren, though.

    Go figure!

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  4. You raised the possible violation of the 2nd commandment.

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  5. Nope, not raising it just referencing it since it was something discussed in the previous post on this topic. I was just referencing it as an aside, hence the "Added benefit" language, and I wasn't coming down on one side of it or the other. And I was stating that it becomes irrelevant if we can discard the creation of images of Jesus on other grounds.

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  6. I'll raise the violation. A picture of Jesus that is not actually Jesus is still a violation of the 2d commandment in the same sense that an image of a golden calf is not an actual image of YHWH, and yet it violates it. This is where speculative philosophy needs to take a backseat to Scripture. The Sinai Theology of Exodus and DtrH is extended to Jesus in the Gospel of John. We cannot truly believe through sight, and it takes our identity as Christ followers gained from following Him through His Words and places it in the imaginative pictures we produce of Him in our mind's eye (which is why YHWH rejected an image as representing Him in the OT.

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  7. Is the golden calf unlawful because it doesn't actually represent Yahweh, or because it actually misrepresents Yahweh?

    Keep in mind that a bovine image isn't inherently sacrilegious. For instance, a veterinary school might have diagrams of bovine anatomy. That wouldn't violate the 2nd commandment.

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  8. It's wrong because it's meant to represent Him, not depict Him (just like most idols in the ancient Near East). So it is the representative role of an image that seeks to fill in for the god's presence, and it is through that image that one carries on the relationship. In biblical religion, YHWH replaces the images with what He speaks, so that people must have a relationship with Him through that instead. Apart from it, a false relationship is formed (and the Bible seems to set these as conflicting trajectories to where we would not be able to combine both together). This is then extended to Jesus (hence, He is called the Word, we are to listen to the words that He speaks, He alone has words of eternal life, we are to obey His commandments, a little while and we will see Him no longer--and then, through His words, we will really "see" Him, we are to be sanctified in truth,which is God's Word, etc.). So the commandment is not the making of any image (as would be the case in the making of a bovine image for medical reasons), but for purposes of knowing something about, and knowing, the deity through representation.

    The golden calf doesn't misrepresent the aspect about YHWH it attempts to convey. It's actually the perfect image for what God has been telling them thus far about Himself (He is strong and will bring them into a fertile land--i.e., strength and fertility are its primary aspects and they represent YHWH well). The problem is that they take men away from worshiping God in spirit and in truth (i.e., through what He has spoken).

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  9. Plus Steve Hays and calves aren't God, but Jesus is. Images purporting to be of Steve Hays and bovine anatomy are secular in nature, Christ is sacred in nature.

    In Christ,
    CD

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  10. B. C. HODGE SAID:

    "It's wrong because it's meant to represent Him, not depict Him."

    That distinction is not self-explanatory. Are you using "represent" in a symbolic rather than descriptive sense? I.e. the image plays a surrogate function?

    "In biblical religion, YHWH replaces the images with what He speaks, so that people must have a relationship with Him through that instead. Apart from it, a false relationship is formed (and the Bible seems to set these as conflicting trajectories to where we would not be able to combine both together). This is then extended to Jesus (hence, He is called the Word, we are to listen to the words that He speaks, He alone has words of eternal life, we are to obey His commandments, a little while and we will see Him no longer--and then, through His words, we will really "see" Him, we are to be sanctified in truth,which is God's Word, etc.)."

    But in the Gospels we have event-media as well as word-media. Christ reveals himself through emblematic miracles as well as spoken words. Dominical miracles are a type of sign language. Concrete, enacted parables

    "The golden calf doesn't misrepresent the aspect about YHWH it attempts to convey. It's actually the perfect image for what God has been telling them thus far about Himself (He is strong and will bring them into a fertile land--i.e., strength and fertility are its primary aspects and they represent YHWH well). The problem is that they take men away from worshiping God in spirit and in truth (i.e., through what He has spoken)."

    But in Exodus-Deuteronomy, Yahweh also reveals himself through theophanies and emblematic miracles. Not to mention the tabernacle, furnishings thereof, priestly vestments, &c. So it's directed at the eye no less than the ear. As such, I don't see any trajectory away from the visual.

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  11. Likewise, take the Apocalypse. That's the capstone of progressive revelation, so it comes at the tail-end of any trajectory. Yet it's a throwback to visionary revelation. Yes, it's a verbal record, but the words form word-pictures. Appealing to the reader's imagination. And that includes pictorial descriptions of Jesus, beginning with the graphic Christophany in Rev 1, as well as the warrior-king in Rev 19.

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  12. If ostensible pictures of Jesus don’t resemble Jesus, then in what sense are they picturing Jesus?

    Perhaps one could argue "in intent."

    But if intent is that which defines what a representation of Christ is, then one would need to be consistent, applying it to all sorts of representations, like for instance, Aslan from the Narnia series, or, to the types and figures of Christ in the Old Testament, which "intend" to represent Christ.

    Here's an angle to consider as well: on a biological level, one can't escape making an image of God. When one reads of Christ in the Scriptures, an image is formed in the brain.

    I don't see how it's at all possible to escape making an image of Christ, even if that image is either in intent or simply the brain's creation as the result of reading Scripture. How far does one take it? If I simply argue that it isn't an image of God because it only exists in my heart, as a consistent Protestant, I'd have to condemn the inner desire to create the image as well as the actual creation of an ostensible image.

    For me, I tend to err on the side of caution. The images of Jesus as referred to by the recent MacArthur / Idolatry controversy may very well be a violation of God's commandment. On the other hand, based on what I stated above, one cannot escape making images of God. I personally would rather not take the chance that the images used by MacArthur are not a violation of God's commandment. It's probably a conservative Dutch gene, deep within my own psyche.

    Blessings, James

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  13. That distinction is not self-explanatory. Are you using "represent" in a symbolic rather than descriptive sense? I.e. the image plays a surrogate function?

    Well, it depends upon how we define "surrogate" and "symbolic"; but, yes, I'm using "represent" as the vehicle through which one knows and worships the deity. In some cases, it is symbolic. In others (as in our present day), it often is meant to depict. Either one is rejected by Sinai Theology.

    "But in the Gospels we have event-media as well as word-media. Christ reveals himself through emblematic miracles as well as spoken words. Dominical miracles are a type of sign language. Concrete, enacted parables."

    Christ actually doesn't reveal Himself through event media (unless you're talking about His work on the cross as a communication of His love, etc., but we know of those works through the spoken Word, and they are interpreted therein for us, so even they are subject to the interpretation of "God's Word" to us, i.e., we must come to them through hearing the Word, not through our sense of sight that takes hold of those events as they are). John's point seems to be that He reveals Himself salvifically through word only. Without word, Jesus is just another miracle worker who was executed by the Romans. Miracles point to Him as verification for those who already believe, but they do not reveal Him. So, of course, they communicate something, but we don't know Jesus from BarJesus through miracles. There are numerous false prophets in the world, who also do miracles. This doesn't reveal who they are. It is the message that accompanies those miracles. This is one of John's main points (throughout his writings). Jesus reveals the Father through His words. Belief in miracles is superficial belief and must come to maturation in believing what is spoken (or it is deemed false). Of course, it would take a commentary to show all of that. I don't expect you to agree with me just by my stating it. I'm only saying that this objection is worked out.

    In any case, I'm not arguing that the Bible would remove all sight, but all images of God that are meant to function as vehicles through which we commune with God. That which accompanies the Word are images, but not images of God. They are images of other things.

    (cont.)

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  14. (cont.)

    "But in Exodus-Deuteronomy, Yahweh also reveals himself through theophanies and emblematic miracles. Not to mention the tabernacle, furnishings thereof, priestly vestments, &c. So it's directed at the eye no less than the ear. As such, I don't see any trajectory away from the visual."

    My argument wasn't that there is a trajectory from all physical symbols that accompany God's revelation, but a incompatible trajectory (for fallen man at least) of worshiping God through both word and image (each attempting to represent His Person and receive His presence). Obviously, the Scripture is filled with reports of physical images, but if they're of God, then they are condemned, not praised.

    Finally, God's theophanies in the OT are not meant to reveal Him, they are meant to hide Him, and those narratives make that clear (as a side, most of what people consider theophanies in Scripture actually aren't physical appearances, but highly symbolic visions where the reader must hear the prophetically-reported Word to think about them. Hence, when God says in Deuteronomy (4:1-20)that they only saw clouds of smoke and fire (in one of the only real theophanies in the OT), He also says they saw no form--thus making the point that the theophany is not an image, but a cloaking of the divine essence.

    What you need to do, Steve, is show how your arguments above don't undermine what God is saying in Deut 4. Couldn't I just come back at God and say, "Well, You use images in the tabernacle, so images representing You can't be all bad."


    But I don't think what God is saying is that we should go blind and use nothing visual. Rather, I think His point is that we should not think of Him in a physical manner, but instead think of Him through what He has revealed about Himself. Hence, the person who thinks he has a relationship with Jesus because he prays to a seventeenth century depiction of a Spaniard as representing Jesus isn't praying to Jesus, not because Jesus may not have looked like that Spaniard, but because Jesus doesn't accept that form of worship. It must be through spirit (i.e., the unseen) and truth (i.e., via hearing). All other visuals must support that trajectory, and according to Scripture, physical images of the divine work against it for us.

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  15. Mr. Hodge is writing a lot of excellent argument. It would be wise to heed it instead of playing sport with debate tactics and what comes across as an Alfred E Neuman attitude about this matter.

    I'll cut to the chase and point out the real-world impact by noting the three types of people who desire or utilize images of Jesus:

    1 - Biblical Christians who don't know better. But they should.

    2 - The weak-willed, ear-tickled, milquetoast type of folks who (mistakenly) think they need imagery of Jesus in order to worship him better/fully/at all.

    It becomes their mental image of him and is what they picture when they pray. They are worshipping an image of their own choosing.

    3 - The third group of people who are into images of Jesus are Hindus and other polytheists who worship all sorts of gods. They will happily add his picture into the montage of their deities to ensure they have all their bases covered. This category also includes those who are Christians in name only and who think having religious imagery around their house/car/desk makes them a Christian, because they also (in essence) worship multiple gods, they just don't realize it.

    The common thread among all three groups is that they're all sadly mistaken.

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  16. Meant to note that Group 1 often comes out of Group 2, Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy, and thus may not have learned yet about discarding relics and rituals that are unnecessary for the Biblical Christian.

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  17. Here's a debate on images between my friend and David VanDrunen.

    http://ruberad.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/hs-images-of-christ/

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  18. B. C. HODGE SAID:

    “Christ actually doesn't reveal Himself through event media (unless you're talking about His work on the cross as a communication of His love, etc., but we know of those works through the spoken Word, and they are interpreted therein for us, so even they are subject to the interpretation of ‘God's Word’ to us, i.e., we must come to them through hearing the Word, not through our sense of sight that takes hold of those events as they are).”

    Actually, he does reveal himself through event-media. For instance, the miracle of Cana is explicitly said to be revelatory. To take a few more examples, the multiplication of loaves and fish illustrate the fact that Jesus is the bread of life. The healing of the blind man illustrates the fact that Jesus is the light of the world. The raising of Lazarus illustrates the fact that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

    So miracles like these reveal the person and work of Christ. That’s what makes them “signs.”

    “Without word, Jesus is just another miracle worker who was executed by the Romans.”

    That fails to take into account the metaphorical significance of dominical miracles, as well as their evocation of OT types and shadows.

    “Miracles point to Him as verification for those who already believe, but they do not reveal Him.”

    That’s reductionistic. Dominical miracles have a purpose beyond attesting Jesus (see above).

    “It is the message that accompanies those miracles.”

    You’re erecting a false dichotomy. Word and sign are mutually interpretive.

    “Finally, God's theophanies in the OT are not meant to reveal Him, they are meant to hide Him, and those narratives make that clear…”

    To the contrary, the narratives indicate the revelatory significance of God’s OT theophanies and miracles. The plagues of Egypt have an explicitly revelatory function (e.g. Exod 7:5; 9:16). The theophanic angelophany in Exod 33 is explicitly revelatory. Theophanies both reveal and conceal.

    “What you need to do, Steve, is show how your arguments above don't undermine what God is saying in Deut 4.”

    That’s reversible. You need to show how your arguments don’t undermine what God is saying about the revelatory function of miracles and theophanies in Scripture.

    Moreover, I’ve discussed Deut 4 before.

    “Hence, the person who thinks he has a relationship with Jesus because he prays to a seventeenth century depiction of a Spaniard as representing Jesus isn't praying to Jesus, not because Jesus may not have looked like that Spaniard, but because Jesus doesn't accept that form of worship.”

    That’s a different objection. Moreover, that’s not the only potential motivation for artistic renderings of Jesus. For instance, an artistic rendering of Gospel scenes may be a visual interpretation of the narrative.

    “It must be through spirit (i.e., the unseen) and truth (i.e., via hearing).”

    That cuts against the grain of Jn 1:14.

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  19. Jacob said...

    "Mr. Hodge is writing a lot of excellent argument. It would be wise to heed it instead of playing sport with debate tactics and what comes across as an Alfred E Neuman attitude about this matter."

    And you'd do well to engage my arguments rather than making dismissive, derisive comments.

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  20. Steve, it's game-playing to avoid the glaring fact that we have no record of what Jesus actually looked like, in order to argue over subsequent points that only merit a discussion if we had such a record to begin with. (Such iconography can only ever be error without one, hence why God discouraged such practice both via old testament commandment and by distinctly avoiding physical descriptions of Jesus in the new.)

    That over-arching fact renders all of your coy debate tactics null and void. Or is it proper to ignore a truth in order to argue over things that don't matter when one allows for that truth?

    Also, do we just ignore half of a person's statement when replying to it in order to be able to respond to it?

    Hodge wrote: "“Christ actually doesn't reveal Himself through event media (unless you're talking about His work on the cross as a communication of His love, etc., but we know of those works through the spoken Word, and they are interpreted therein for us, so even they are subject to the interpretation of ‘God's Word’ to us, i.e., we must come to them through hearing the Word, not through our sense of sight that takes hold of those events as they are).

    You ignore the part in bold and respond with examples of events that we do not have visual records of, only the written account of the events in the Word. If you take into account that latter half of his statement you couldn't even raise the objection you do.

    That's playing games, brosace.

    (brosace was the Word Verification phrase for this post. it's like "bro" and "Versace". how cool is that for a quasi-portmanteau? lol :)

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  21. JACOB SAID:

    "Steve, it's game-playing to avoid the glaring fact that we have no record of what Jesus actually looked like, in order to argue over subsequent points that only merit a discussion if we had such a record to begin with...That over-arching fact renders all of your coy debate tactics null and void."

    And you need to furnish an argument for why that's even relevant.

    Hodge wrote: "“Christ actually doesn't reveal Himself through event media (unless you're talking about His work on the cross as a communication of His love, etc., but we know of those works through the spoken Word, and they are interpreted therein for us, so even they are subject to the interpretation of ‘God's Word’ to us, i.e., we must come to them through hearing the Word, not through our sense of sight that takes hold of those events as they are).”

    A non sequitur if, in fact, a Christian illustrator is illustrating the Gospels. He is using the written record as his primary source of information.

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  22. A non sequitur if, in fact, a Christian illustrator is illustrating the Gospels. He is using the written record as his primary source of information.

    Yet the hypothetical artist is using sheer imagination to image Jesus Christ, since we have no extant record of His visage.

    He fashions the likeness of a man, and call it God.

    There's actually a reason for the Second Commandment.

    In Christ,
    CD

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  23. Coram Deo: I see the same disconnect happening here that happens when the presup'er challenges the atheist.
    In the latter case, the atheist makes an assertion as fact and we ask them how they know it to be so. They avoid that question or ignore it, because they cannot answer it, and attempt to argue past it. When repeatedly called out on their failure to answer it they start attacking the questioner.

    Here we have a remarkably similar situation where several folks have pointed out that there is no visual reference or physical description of Jesus in the Bible, so any modern image of Jesus is based significantly on one's imagination. The defenders of such things strive hard to ignore that fact and attempt to argue past it, trying to find a way to get into the weeds or change the subject from the commissioning of any images of any member of the triune God to picture-bible sunday school flannelgraph artwork, as if the latter could somehow excuse the former.

    It's the same mentality of "if we can just get past that challenge or ignore it or muddy the waters, we can actually move on to something we can actually argue about". Problem is, they can't overcome that primary objection.

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  24. Jacob,

    You keep assuming what you haven't proven. Why do we need more information about what Jesus looked like before we do something like painting a picture of Him? We often form mental images or memories of individuals based on partial information. If we saw a person from the ankles up, we fill in the rest of his body with our mind. Or if we saw four of his fingers, but not the fifth, we fill in the rest. We don't expect exact identity when we paint a picture, take a photograph, form an image in our mind, etc.

    With Jesus, we have some Old and New Testament descriptions to go by, and we have some information in extra-Biblical sources. There's still some missing information, but who claims that our images of Jesus are exact or have to be? People who met Jesus when He walked the earth would have had only partial knowledge of His appearance. Their mind would have filled in the rest, as we do when we look at other people. I see no reason to consider that sinful.

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  25. "You keep assuming what you haven't proven. Why do we need more information about what Jesus looked like before we do something like painting a picture of Him? "

    You're turning my point around. I'm pointing out precisely the same thing of those who craft iconography of Jesus: They have no information about what Jesus actually looked like. It is entirely of their imagination. How can they then rightly "do something like paint a picture of Him"? They can't. They can only create a false image, despite their best intentions.

    To quote from the reply in the other thread here ("Interpreting Jesus"):

    Even on a practical level, there are no visual source materials or physical descriptions of Jesus, so how can it be anything OTHER than imagination and thus invalid and inauthentic?

    How can it enhance anything related to one's worship or understanding of Jesus to use something that is at its core faulty?

    What is it that you fear if you were to give up all iconography of God, such that we strain for exceptions to try to prove against a rule that covers the norms?

    Why the urge to seek out gray areas instead of avoid them out of respect for the Christ?

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  26. Steve, my response was getting too long, so I just moved it over to my site.

    http://theologicalsushi.blogspot.com/2011/10/no-graven-image-this-includes-jesus.html

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  27. Jacob wrote:

    " You're turning my point around. I'm pointing out precisely the same thing of those who craft iconography of Jesus: They have no information about what Jesus actually looked like. It is entirely of their imagination. How can they then rightly 'do something like paint a picture of Him'? They can't. They can only create a false image, despite their best intentions."

    Why do you keep ignoring the Biblical and extra-Biblical information we have about Jesus' appearance? We've repeatedly given you examples, yet you keep using phrases like "no information" and "entirely of their imagination". Why?

    What you refer to as a "false image" is known to be an approximation. No dishonesty is involved. We rely on such approximations in many areas of life, as I explained in my last post. People who met Jesus when He walked the earth would have relied on such approximations when looking at Him, remembering Him, etc.

    You go on to repeat more claims that depend on your unsupported assumptions. You can't accuse us of appealing to "exceptions" or looking for "gray" when you still haven't demonstrated the alleged rule and alleged black-and-white standard you keep appealing to. You assume your conclusion without establishing it, then criticize us for deviating from your unsupported conclusion.

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  28. Jacob acts as if he's raising an objection no one ever thought of before. For instance, I don't assume Jesus physically resembles Jim Caviezel. Likewise, I don't expect actors to physically resemble the historical figures they portray. For instance, I seriously doubt Cleopatra was the spitting image of Liz Taylor.

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  29. Suppose an East Indian director filmed the Gospel of John using native actors. I wouldn't have a problem with that.

    Same thing with a cinematic adaptation of John's Gospel using Aborigines, Amerasians, Cherokees, Chinese, Chinooks, Filipinos, Gypsies, Incas, Pygmies, or Polynesians.

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  30. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.

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