A traveling exhibit of Russian icons came to Chicago's Art Institute a few years ago. Soft lighting accented the icons, which were hung on walls and room dividers placed to create a labyrinthine path through which viewers wound their way. Neatly printed plaques beside each icon told the date of the icon's creation, the name of its creator, and any artistic techniques of interest.
As I walked through the exhibit, I realized that though I saw icons up close and learned a bit about their origin and design, I hardly understood them at all. To grasp their real significance, I would have to attend an Orthodox service and observe how Orthodox Christians use them. I would have to meditate on one in the context of worship. And though my Protestant sensibilities would prevent me from doing so, I knew that if I really wanted to grasp their meaning, I would have to pray through them, as do the Orthodox.
In short, I could not become icon literate by studying icons in a museum. You cannot rip icons out of their natural setting and expect to understand them.
Some call the Bible the icon of Protestants. It is the physical object more than any other that opens to us a window into heaven. I think about this, and my experience at the icon exhibit, every time I hear about another effort to teach the Bible as literature in the public schools.
You would think that as a card-carrying evangelical, I would be thrilled wherever and however the Bible is studied. As the Lord says through Isaiah, "My word shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:11). Even when the Bible is taught as mere literature, the truth of Scripture has a way of penetrating ...1