Pet Peeves: Icons and Churches

Icons are not written. Icons are pictures. One does not write a picture. The Greek word graphia may encompass various types of image, including both pictorial representations and symbols representing spoken language, (and we see this in some words of Greek origin, such as photograph, graphic, calligraphy, cacography, and so forth), but the English language draws a distinction between writing and painting. If we do not refer to people painting an essay, then why should we speak of people "writing" an icon? Both are equally illogical. I know it's just a cute word play that people sometimes adopt because of the dual meaning of the original Greek, (which, I think, is preserved in the Slavonic). Some people self-consciously say, 'This icon was written by Iohannes Smithopoulos, who does some wonderful work'. They then pause for a while, as if waiting to be asked why they chose that particular word, so that they can make some point along the lines that, while an icon is an image, it speaks the theology of the Church just as a written text would. The motives seem good in theory but in practice it always seems like an affectation. It sounds forced because it is not standard English to refer to somebody writing a picture.

Then there's this business of referring to churches as 'temples', which seems prevalent in liturgical texts originating in North America (but not all), and which seems to have spread from there into conversation. Of this, I can be less certain than I am about icons, but I was taught that the word khram can be correctly translated into English as house, church, or temple. However, it is not normal in the English language to refer to a Christian place of worship as a temple. Checking the British texts to which I have access or of which I have experience, it seems that those used by the Antiochian, Russian (ROCOR and Sourozh), and Greek churches in the UK refer to the 'church' in the rubrics and in the chanted litanies refer to 'this holy house'. Is it usual in North America to call a Christian church a temple or is it just a bad translation? 'This holy temple' always sounds very odd to my English ears.

Anyway, now that I've got that off my chest, I can relax. :-)

8 responses:

Mark M said...

"Is it usual in North America to call a Christian church a temple or is it just a bad translation? It always sounds very odd to my English ears."

Sometimes. But often only used by Christians/nominal-Christians as a term of derision when they have become Upset With Faith. I think here it's just linguistic boneheadedness.

margaret said...

I suspect it's an affectation originating with groups who think that calling a place of worship a church isn't holy enough. America is the land of a gazillion denominations so they have to do something to assert their distinctiveness. As far as Orthodox service books are concerned it's probably bad translation by non-native speakers which has been taken up and maintained by ex-evangelicals who like that sort of thing.

Michael said...

I imagine you're both right. It seems that much good sense emanates from north of the border. I must venture up there again soon.

Fr. Seraphim Bell said...

It's not at all an affectation, neither is it a mistranslation. It derives from the Greek liturgical texts which use the word "naos" which is "temple" in English. (It can be translated as "church" but in the Greek lit. texts, "ekklesia" is used for "church" and "naos" for "temple."

Michael said...

Welcome, Father Seraphim! :-)

Thank you for your response, which I find interesting. I have neither Greek nor Slavonic but have merely been taught certain things about certain words, so am happy to defer to more learned authority.

In Britain, we have something called The Ecclesiological Society. It, in fact, has nothing to do with ecclesiology but is rather an academic society for those with a common interest in gothic and other church architecture. I was once told by somebody who knows about These Things™ that this is something of a misnomer as, he said, the Greek ekklesia was never used in reference to a church building but rather to the community of people.

Is that not the case?

I know that words in one language do not map directly onto words in another, and that a word in one language will often carry a sense that is not implied by the word currently used to render its meaning in another language. Then, if naos can legitimately be translated as church in English, is it not better to simply do so as this is the word normally used in the English language for a Christian place of worship? Is there something in the word temple that would be lost by doing so?

It isn't anything over which I would go to the stake but I do find these things interesting and wonder that we may perhaps make ourselves appear more exotic than necessary. :-)

Jon Marc said...

I must confess that were we to use "temple" more widely in North America (with signs read 'Holy Wisdom Orthodox Temple' or what have you) I would have a problem with it (passersby would think we were some variant of Buddhists or Hindus!), but I rather prefer its use in the services because it reminds us as Orthodox of the holiness of God's house. I lived in Ethiopia for several years and there (as in Egypt) reverence for churches as holy places is far more ingrained and pronounced than it is amongst the northern Orthodox, so I find anything that reminds us of that good (especially considering the complete lack of reverence for the church building amongst most converts).

Michael said...

(passersby would think we were some variant of Buddhists or Hindus!)

I think many of them already do! :-)

That said, I do think you're right that we need to always be mindful of the gravity of what we are doing when we worship God, and do what we can to foster a sense of awe and reverence. You must be all the more aware of it with your Ethipian experience.

Let us stand well, let us stand with fear, let us attend.

Michael said...

I forgot to say that my reaction against the word temple is probably partly due to baggage from my previous existence, where I would be surprised at photographs and videos of women dancing around the altar with bowls of incense.

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