We were standing in the middle of the Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria. A bright high-school senior from our church was walking around the cathedral in hushed reverence, gazing upward at the towering depictions of St. Cyril and St. Methodius who brought the Bible (and the Cyrillic language) to the Eastern world, and who happened to hail from Bulgaria.
I watched as she approached the altar, staring up at the Christ Pantocrator in the dome directly above the altar. She circled the bright candelabras, aflame with thin beeswax candles lit by the Orthodox faithful. I was talking to her mom as she crossed over from a nearby icon where a man crossed himself before kissing an icon in obeisance.
Her mom was telling me how one of our translators – an “evangelical” now – described how as a child and teenager she had kissed a hundred icons, thinking of it now as a kind of slavery – a gilded, hand-painted veil separating the Creator and the creation. I watched her daughter, who had walked near enough now to hear our conversation, as her sense of awe faded into mild disappointment.
Earlier in the week, we were eating dinner after a day of throwing back-to-school parties at orphanages and squeezing in a short visit to a small monastery. The teenage girl had told me how she thought the artwork was beautiful. The combination of the wall-to-wall art tinged with the soot of 200 years of incense drew her spirit upward, toward something greater and more beautiful than we worshiped in our small white church.
I tried to relate. I remember the first time I ever walked into Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. From the chiming of the hour to the choir anthem, everything seemed bigger, grander, somehow more full of meaning than I had ever experienced in worship.
After a few weeks of anticipating worship as a sumptuous feast for the senses, I sat in the north transept to change my perspective. At one point my eyes scanned the crowd, only to see teenagers being, well, teenagers. A mop-headed boy was whispering something to a girl, who giggled a little too loudly. Others were passing notes. A couple of athletic boys were out cold, sleeping safely through a brilliant sermon.
I told the young woman across the table from me that I realized in that moment that had I grown up in that beautiful church, I would likely have the same general apathy that many of those youth had. Familiarity may breed contempt, but more likely it breeds familiarity. We grow too passive, too comfortable. When the Spirit whispers, we strain to hear it because our liturgical sensibilities have already switched to auto-pilot.
Recently, someone told me that technology can become, as all created things, implicitly idolatrous. I struggled with that concept for some time. As a 30-something who can barely remember when my parents bought their first computer, technology has always been a welcome companion.
As a minister who seeks to integrate technology into worship, communication and even faith development, I am used to those resistant to technology. Some fear it is implicitly evil while most are leery of what they perceive as a steep learning curve.
Admittedly, there are some for whom technology has brought the same kind of slavery that our Bulgarian translator felt. Beyond the compulsion to check e-mail, we can develop a reliance on social networking, constantly checking to see who is following us on Twitter or who currently maintains the wittiest status update on Facebook.
Some have rightly claimed that technology, while “connecting” individuals, offers a sort of artificial community where each user controls the information others see about them. I am not sure this is dissimilar from the environment at most churches on a Sunday morning. After all, how many conversations go beyond “Good morning, how are you?” not to mention whether or not anyone answers truthfully. Tradition can be its own kind of iconoclasm.
The mortal sin of iconoclasm happens when any technology or tradition becomes the sole medium through which we understand grace.
I remember standing in that great cathedral thinking, “How is it that both these things are happening at the same time? This teenager and I feel such a sense of mystery and awe while others can only measure their faith by the number of prayers offered, tithes given or candles they’ve lighted.”
And then I imagined sitting in my church on any given Sunday and feeling the same thing – and sometimes even feeling the other side of it – the one of compulsion and guilt. Or in front of a computer listening to a sermon from Michigan or Texas, hearing the word but missing the community in which the word was brought forth.
True community defies all attempts at iconoclasm. Technology and art – icons real and virtual – can inspire, convict and uplift, but it is only in genuine, physical community that we find individuals that help us wrestle with mystery and curb our idolatrous tendencies.