The Word as Icon

During my tenure as an Episcopalian, some of my friends and I used to refer dismissively to Biblical fundamentalists as Bibliolators — those who make the Bible into an idol, worshiping it (and their particular way of understanding its words) rather than the Word of whom it testifies.

Nowadays I’m inclined to see such name-calling as not particularly useful (and not evidential of much in the way of Christian charity), but I continue to have some concerns about the human capacity to turn anything — even the Bible, even the church, even the Blessed Sacrament, anything — into an idol, misplacing our worship toward a thing that we think we can control, instead of toward the untameable, out-of-control God who is not only beyond all human capacity for manipulation, but who remains even beyond the limits of human thought and reason and imagination.

Let’s face it. Highly educated liberals can idolize their historical critical method or Jesus seminar skepticism as much as a relatively unsophisticated fundamentalist can idolize his or her naive reading of the text. So, in the spirit of Matthew 7:3-4, perhaps instead of worrying about how others might turn Sacred Scripture into an idol, I/we all need to focus our attention instead on how to approach the text so that it functions not as an idol, but as in icon.

If an idol diverts our worship away from the living God toward a useless cul-de-sac of superstition or imagined control, then an icon functions as a luminous “window onto heaven,” directing our gaze and our love through and beyond itself to that which can never be contained by anything of human design.

I think the key to understanding the difference between an idol and an icon lies in control. An idol is something we seek to control, whether consciously or unconsciously. We bargain with it, we perform superstitious rituals to gain favor with it, we decide that we have it all figured out. An icon, by contrast, is something we approach in poverty and humility, conceding that we cannot control it and instead open ourselves up to be changed, transformed, illumined by it. When we encounter the icon, we open our hearts because we seek to be made new by that Divine Mystery to which the icon directs us.

My prayer for myself, and you, and all people today is that we can encounter the words of the Gospel, indeed of all Sacred Scripture, as sacred icons, that directly reveal God’s glory (Colossians 1:15-20) or even that indirectly reveal it, by pointing out how we human beings ignore it (Psalm 137:8-9). May we be transformed by the Word that pulsates before, beneath and beyond the words.

Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Julia

    wish I could go to the spiritual writing retreat. When are you heading to Cali to teach?

  • Joanna

    Windows into Heaven…the title of my most recent published novel. A window into eternity. Thanks, Carl.


  • chuck cooper

    As a former Pentecostal/Fundamentalist turned United Methodist, turning Catholic, I appreciate your thoughts and insights on the Word very much Carl. Thank you. Your distinguishing of an icon and an idol is very insightful. To this day, I love the Bible as I would cherish a love letter from my wife. I still do not put other books on top the Bible as an act of respect, reverence, and deep abiding love.

  • Mike

    The issue of control and your distinction between icon and idol is very insightful and helpful, thank you. As I reflected on your post it occurs to me that control is a part of both icon and idol. Idols reflect our assertion of control and icons reflect our relinquishment of control. Idols reveal what it looks like when we create in our own image and likeness whereas icons reveal what it looks like to be created in the image and likeness of God. Peace, Mike

  • Yvette Arias

    Thanks for your writing and for the website! I just ran into it at a time when I have been thinking a lot about how to direct my spiritual life and I feel like I hit the jack pot of resources with your website! You have integrated so many resources about the spiritual life in a way I haven’t seen any place else.

  • stephanie jordan

    Carl, what an eye-opener this article was for me! Thank you for contemplating the topic, taking the time to write it and sharing it with us all. Your article comes to me precisely at a time when I am actively trying to reach higher levels of consciousness and transformation. I realize that I must clean up the scars of bible manipulation and control that were used on me as a child, which is a major obstacle in a transformation taking place. Thanks again for writing this.

  • Peter Bishop


    You say that words like “Bibliolator” are name calling. That is only true if fundamentalists are regarded as strangers and foreigners, alien to one’s own experience. But for those of us who have _been_ fundamentalist, whose experience of fundamentalism has been up-close and personal and deeply damaging, Bibliolatry is a label that we _need_ if we are going to be able to name our own experience.

    It can be uncharitable to call somebody an alcoholic, too. But owning the label is absolutely essential to the recovery process. You don’t call AA uncharitable because they call heavy drinkers alcoholics. They’re not doing it to feel smug and superior; they’re truth-telling about their own human condition.

    I’m not saying Biblical scholars don’t have their own idolatry. But the world is not neatly divided into cynical scholars in one camp and “relatively unsophisticated fundamentalists” in the other. The world is, in fact, awash with refugees from fundamentalism–refugees who still have their passionate hunger for God but who have great difficulty treating as an icon something that was previously thrust upon them as an idol.

  • Peter Bishop

    I re-read my comment, and I see how angry and in-your-face it sounds. Honestly, I don’t mean to be hostile and my questions are real, not rhetorical.

    Thirty years after leaving the Christian church, I am reading the Bible again, very differently than I did in my youth. I like your distinction between idol and icon–I didn’t actually get around to saying that in my first comment.

    But thirty years ago, when I started trying to articulate the problems I was having with Christianity, I talked about the Bible as a graven image that fundamentalists bowed down before, and people looked at me like I was babbling nonsense. Decades later, when I first heard the word “Bibliolatry,” I learned for the first time that there were other Christians out there who shared my experience of the Bible. They had probably been out there all along, but I’d never found them and in the mean time I had to completely reinvent my spiritual life, first alone, then as a Wiccan for twenty years, and now as a Quaker (but still not Christian).

    Perhaps it was meant to be. I certainly don’t begrudge my experience of the Goddess and the Horned God, and I’m certainly not the first mystic to have been given a kick in the pants by the Gods and told to “go wander” with no further instructions.

    But if Christians–passionate, mystical Christians with a full and vivid experience of God–had been more vocal about calling Bibliolatry by its name, I might still be Christian today. As is, every time a Christian talks about “tolerance” towards our fundamentalist brothers and sisters, it makes Christianity a little bit less safe and less welcoming for me.

  • Carl McColman

    I hear you, Peter. I was angry, too, for many years, and I still have flare-ups from time to time. It’s a tricky tightrope, this question of non-judgment toward those who live in judgment. Erring in the direction of tolerance can lead to tolerating things that aren’t okay, but erring in the other direction just creates more judgment.