Top positive review
14 people found this helpful
Finding the focus
on 4 January 2006
Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote the book 'Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement' while he was Archbishop of Wales, primate of a national church in the Anglican Communion outside of England. In his preface, he states that he was working on this book for the greater part of a decade: 'There have been times when I thought this book might more honestly have been presented as a sort of journal of the 1990s.' Of course, during this time, Williams wasn't even Archbishop of Wales; he spent much of the decade of the 1990s as Bishop of Monmouth.
This was the era of the Spice Girls, of the death of Prince Diana, of Madonna (the singer, not the Blessed Virgin Mary) and of other media sensations that came to be called 'icons'. An icon used to be used in terms almost exclusively for those images that Eastern Orthodox (among selected others) hold for veneration and prayer. Now it is more likely referring to a computer graphic image; even the media 'icons' have fallen. Williams resists the urge to set out a complex theological and aesthetic theory of iconography, but rather, more accessibly, looks at areas that are more particularly associated with everyday life and ways of thinking.
Williams looks at issues of identity, choice and will, society encroachments upon these aspects as well as the recognition of the other, that part of the world and society (including pieces of ourselves) that are outside of us and our own control. Finally, Williams looks at the issue of the soul, hoping to recover a 'lost language of the soul', taking secular language construction to task in theological as well as historical and psychological terms.
'So, this is an essay about the erosions of selfhood in North Atlantic modernity.' This involves issues in politics, economics, and philosophy as well as religion and theology. Williams' grasp of the fundament issues is strong, and his breadth of knowledge to draw these disciplines together in a useful and thoughtful way is impressive. Williams calls for a kind of cultural discourse that goes beyond the modern slogan and sound bite; this may seem radical, but in fact is what the true founders of modern society were calling for against the backdrop of medievalism. Who are we? Do we as individuals each have a self?
This is an important consideration - just what does our self consist of? Quoting Joseph Needleman, Williams states that 'Christian doctrine and exhortation are meaningless in our present context so long as we have no idea of what sense of self such teaching is address to.' We are called by Williams to build a new self different from that which media-saturated, postmodern society imposes upon us. Williams finally relates his argument back to the Eastern-style icon and what that means for us today. We have lost focus, lost a luminosity that these icons embody and demonstrate.
How can one not love a book in whose index Madonna, John Major, David Mamet, Thomas Merton and the Muppet Workshop appear virtually side by side (not to mention Roald Dahl, Jacques Derrida, and Diana, Princess of Wales)? Despite the references to Hegel and Derrida (among others), Williams text remains accessible and inviting to the general reader, and a real gift to those who have an interest in theology, spirituality, and culture.