Surface and Depth


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension between the visual image and the need for the spoken word arises because images require interpretation. The Bible itself can be described as an interpretation of the image of God that we see in Genesis. Interpretation implies multiple explanations exist of any give image. Some interpretations fit the image better than others. Because language itself changes over time, each generation must find its own best explanation of God’s image.

Interpreting Visual Images

This interpretative problem arises immediately in Genesis 1 where we find, after creation, God involved in two interpretative activities: separation and naming.  We read a series of these separations and naming conventions, as in:

 “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Gen 1:3-5)

God creates light, declares it to be good, and names it day. He then follows suit to distinguish the day from night. Likewise, God distinguishes evening and morning, heaven and earth, and dry land and water. Different aspects of light are repeatedly discussed—days, light, greater lights, lesser lights.

These separations highlight the interpretative problem. How does one describe a world forever in shades of twilight? Image a child trying to describe times and seasons without these distinctions? 

I am reminded of the Iraqi war veteran in the film, The Hurt Locker (2008). After facing death and destruction every day in the war as he disarmed improvised explosive devices (IEDs), on returning home his wife sends him to the grocery store for cereal. Walking down a long aisle of cereal brands in the store, he is unable to decide what to buy. Overwhelmed with choices, he grabs the nearest box and leaves. This problem of choices highlights the moral dilemma of insisting that every action we undertake be parsed from every possible social perspective.

The seriousness of the interpretation problem is underscored in Genesis when Satan asks Eve: “Did God actually say, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1) Here even God’s words are being twisted. How much more can a visual image, such as the image of God, be twisted by those unable to make appropriate distinctions and are generally unprepared for the testing?


Beauty is almost indistinguishable in biblical use from the modern concept of authenticity. In both concepts structure and character complement one another. The surface appearance reflects a harmony within. The beauty we observe in nature reflects fingerprints of our divine creator. Dyrness (2001, 80) writes: “the biblical language for beauty reveals that beauty is connected both to God’s presence and activity and to the order that God has given to creation.” 

The call for authenticity begins in the third verse of the Bible: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Unlike our proclivity to sin as revealed in our flaws, God’s words (Let there be light) and actions (and there was light) are in perfect harmony. The contrast between heaven and earth could not be greater. Unlike heaven, which Revelation reminds us needs no light other than God (Rev 21:23), earth requires illumination that God immediately creates.

God’s pre-existence relative to creation is underscored in the name that he gives Moses in the burning bush. ‎אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Exod 3:14 WTT) that can be translated either as “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Or in vernacular English: “I am the real deal” that implies authentic being—something original that cannot be wholly copied. By contrast, human beings, created in the image of God, possess only the potential for authentic being because sin gets in the way.

Jesus talked a lot about authenticity and about its inverse—hypocrisy. Perhaps his most famous statement about hypocrisy began with an admonition: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1) We frequently judge people by our own estimate of the degree of their hypocrisy. In a book with an ironic theme of authenticity, Howard Thurman (1996, 106) observed about the woman caught in adultery: [Jesus] “met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she were already where she now willed to be. In dealing with her he ‘believed’ her into the fulfillment of her possibilities.” For Jesus, the tension between our desires and actions measured not just our authenticity, but also our proclivity to sin. Anger leads to murder; lust leads to adultery (Matt 5:22, 28).


The Bible describes human beings as created in the image of God, but with sin this image is quickly tarnished and other images quickly morph into idols and detestable things. Superficiality literally means a focus on the surface appearance. It breaks the biblical link between heart and mind.

Think of pornography as converting human physiology from an image of God into a object of our own desires. The conversion may be prompted by particular poses or behavior, but the conversion itself takes place not in the physical form but in eyes of the observer. Pornography perverts the mind more than the body. 

The idea of luck likewise focuses on outward appearances. Here God’s blessing is seen merely as a fortunate accident, whose origin is neglected. Superstition likewise denies the stewardship and sovereignty of the Holy Spirit over the created realm and, in many cases, abandons God in favor of evil spirits or worse.

Heart and Mind

Being created in the image of a living God, begs the question of life itself. Life is the ultimate union of heart and mind—the body and the spirit cannot be separated. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ testifies to the unity of heart and mind in Christian thought.

The human spirit, although undefinable, is obvious by its absence. A beautiful, living human body emptied of its spirit is no more than a repulsive corpse. A body without the spirit is a zombie; a spirit without a body is a ghost. 


Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

Thurman, Howard. 1996. Jesus and the Disinherited (Orig Pub 1949). Boston: Beacon Press.

Surface and Depth

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:

Publisher site:



You may also like

Leave a Reply