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  • Icons:A Case Study in Spiritual Borrowing between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Emergent Church

In the summer of 2011, while visiting an emergent church for a research case study in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I witnessed the following setup for corporate worship activities. The church met in an unfinished office building with a large open space with unadorned concrete walls, pillars, and exposed wiring. In the central portion of this space a variety of seating was provided: pews, folding chairs, easy chairs, couches, and school desks. Lyrics for songs and notes from sermons were projected on the bare wall behind the main speaker. On one side of this main seating area, a sectioned-off zone was designated as an art station, and the other side was a prayer station. The art station had chairs and tables covered with butcher paper. Crayons, Play-Doh, markers, and scissors were provided. Also, in this area, two easels were set up with blank canvases, a variety of paint colors, brushes, water, paint thinner, small wooden mannequins, old National Geographic magazines, and artwork completed in previous services, including one loosely interpreted portrayal of an icon. This area was separated from the main seating area by a six foot high votive candle divider, and lamps were provided for additional lighting. The prayer station was also separated by a votive candle divider. On this side, there were many candles, a chair and desk with prayer cards, a "surrender box" for prayers and struggles, a box of facial tissue, a suggested written "forgiveness prayer," a kneeling bench, a prayer journal, and an Eastern Orthodox icon prominently displayed. I was struck by the juxtaposition of a non-religious, multi-purpose space with the prominent place given to religious icons, encapsulating the epitome of traditional Christian ritual practice. This juxtaposition is a concrete, physical example of spiritual borrowing.

Spiritual borrowing is the process of transplanting a spiritual practice that arose in one religion to another religion. For instance, spiritual borrowing occurs when Christians engage in Buddhist meditation or Neo-Pagans utilize prayer beads. Borrowing can range from single practices to theological tenets on up to a complete fusion creating a new religious movement, such as Santería. Here I am investigating a far subtler example of intra-religious borrowing from Eastern Orthodox Christianity by the nascent emergent church movement. Sociologically speaking, the examination of spiritual borrowing [End Page 78]

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Our Lady of Tenderness 285. © 2004 by Clyde Rausch, OMI.

[End Page 79] consists of close scrutiny of two inter-related processes: (1) the appropriation of a particular practice from one religion to another, and (2) the reinterpretation of the purpose and theology of the borrowed practice to fit within its new tradition. I investigate this process through the specific example of the Eastern Orthodox icon as appropriated and reinterpreted by the emergent church. My results show a complex relationship between belief and behavior in which the use of icons is viewed by the borrowing group as neutral containers to be divested and invested with theological content as needed.

I follow a phenomenological methodology in this case study situated in an overarching qualitative framework for sociological study. To begin, a few brief definitions and categorizing remarks follow. First, this case study is qualitative rather than quantitative. Succinctly stated, "Qualitative data deals with meanings, whereas quantitative data deals with numbers."1 The difference in data gathered extends to a difference in conceptual logic with regard to analyzing that data. Specifically, quantitative data lends itself to deductive reasoning in which a researcher begins with a hypothesis and then either proves or disproves it on the basis of the specific data collected. Qualitative research and analysis approaches data from an inductive perspective, allowing inferences to rise out of many detailed observations.2 Qualitative research encourages the development of categories from examination of data collected rather than developing categories prior to examination of collected data. As a result, conclusions are returned that are not intended to be demonstrable, repeatable, and generalizable; rather, their aim is to produce "thick description" through use of a relatively small sample for the purpose of allowing outsiders to comprehend a "culture from the inside in the terms that the participants themselves [use] to describe what is going on."3

Next, while the term case study might be a familiar one, some definitional and clarifying comments are helpful. A case study is the prolonged observation of "a single entity, a unit around which there are boundaries. The case then has a finite quality about it in either terms of time (the evolution or history of a particular program), space (the case is located in a particular place), and/or components comprising the case (number of participants, for example)."4 For the empirical purposes of this study, an individual emergent church (EC) is the appropriate bounded system for an in-depth case study. However, three ECs from different urban areas of the United States provide the context for investigating cross-case theological reinterpretation of borrowed spiritual practice. It is important to note that a case study is distinguished from an ethnography on the basis of its scope. While an ethnography looks at an entire group or culture, a case study concentrates on a single permutation of a culture/group, such as a specific person, program, or sub-community.5 [End Page 80]

In 2011, I conducted a broad-based study on the appropriation and reinterpretation of twenty-one discrete mystic practices by ECs in the southwestern region of the U.S. In the empirical phase of research, I visited three ECs in this area of the country. This selective choice was made on the basis of a few important reasons. First, it was necessary to choose churches which identified as "emergent." While this reason might seem to be obvious in the selection process, it was difficult in practice to locate churches that were willing to allow themselves to be labeled at all. As a consequence of this difficulty, churches were located on the basis of their online participation in the emergent conversation, principally through blogs and web lists of emergent churches. Of the nineteen churches/groups that were approached for participation in the study, the resulting three were willing to identify as emergent and could participate within my time and geographic limitations. Three churches were selected from various urban areas in the southwestern region of the USA to allow for the maximum amount of difference on the basis of location while working within these parameters. Additionally, multiple case studies were used to balance multiple perspectives leading to greater opportunity for discovering general theological principles.

Among these churches, I observed multiple services and meetings, interviewed thirty-eight members or regular attendees, and conducted documentary research on their podcasts and blogposts which composed their archives of sermons and public conversations. I also supplemented the empirical study with literary research in order to locate the spiritual borrowing process within the larger EC phenomenon. I conducted literary research on a thematic basis, examining texts in print and electronic format for all references to and explanations of the spiritual practice. In order to allow for the needed thick description of a qualitative study, the sample size for this case study was kept relatively small. While space limitations prohibit dealing with all of the mystic practices here, the insights of the study can be ascertained through examination of a single spiritual practice, specifically the appropriation and reinterpretation of the Orthodox icon.

Lastly, the foremost instrument for data collection I used was the interview, expressly the phenomenological interview. The phenomenological qualifier refers to interviews which have the purpose of attempting "to understand people's perceptions, perspectives, and understandings of a particular situation."6 In other words, phenomenological interviews are centered on gathering data with regard to meaning given by participants rather than interpreted by a researcher. So, this is a phenomenological case study, not an ethnography. In distinction from phenomenological methods of gathering data, ethnographic methods of data collection focus on the immersion of a researcher in a culture or group which is unfamiliar to him or her for the purpose of interpreting [End Page 81] a group's behaviors.7 This immersion is typically achieved through primary reliance on the method of participant observation. Participant observation requires researcher immersion for an extended period of time in order to observe systematically "dimensions of that setting, interactions, relationships, actions, events and so on, within it."8 Through this lengthy time of immersion, the researcher amasses a substantial amount of data which is interpreted through his or her sense of understanding and meaning as not only an observer but also a participant. Participant observation differs dramatically from phenomenology in that when one moves to what the researcher observed and experienced, a shift is made to the "researcher's reality" rather than the reality of those studied.9 While ethnography is a more conventional method in this type of case study, I give phenomenological methods preeminence because chief emphasis is on participant concepts and reasons for the appropriation of mystic practice.

With these definitions and delineations in mind, the resulting evidence of my phenomenological case study has more value than simple interest in a specific religious group. The results may lead to questions of broader impact. For instance, if spiritual practices tied to the central theology of a particular religious tradition can be borrowed and completely reinterpreted to fit in another religious tradition, then how permeable are the boundaries of religions on a practical level? Thus, this description is offered for the purpose of opening and deepening discussion on the permeability of religious traditions. In other words, the results hold promise for ecumenical discussion on an inductive, or bottom-up, basis through anthropological similarities as opposed to the typical deductive, or top-down, approach to ecumenism which focuses on theology. This discussion has deep potential ramifications, and theological commitments may cause emotions to run high, cutting off options for theoretical conclusions. To avoid this possible pitfall, the topic is approached using an intra-religious example where deep-seated theological divisions do not obscure empirical observations and resulting implications for points of connection.

The two traditions for contrast in this study are Eastern Orthodoxy and the EC. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a well-known tradition that is millennia old, but the EC is quite new on the scene. The EC can be defined loosely as a conversation concerning adaptation of Christianity to postmodernity through substantial change of spiritual practices and theological beliefs inherited from Protestant evangelical Christianity. While conversation is a term that is preferred as a self-designation by EC insiders, the EC can more accurately be understood as a composite of a theological school of thought and a social movement. It is also a trans-denominational movement similar in many respects to the neo-charismatic movement though with different methods and goals. Since the beginning of the EC, participants have demonstrated an interest in icons and other practices arising out of Catholic and Orthodox mystical [End Page 82]

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Life Maze. © 2018 Ruslan Stepanov.

[End Page 83] traditions.10 This circumstance inspires curiosity on several fronts. Significant questions include: why are EC Christians interested in a mystical practice like icons, how are they interested in using icons, and how far does this appropriation extend? The area of direct concern in this article is how deeply their practices connect to the theological tradition from which icons arise.

The research created from this line of inquiry and seen in the opening visual example, will provide insight into cross-tradition appropriation of mystic practices with principal interest in the transferability of theology. I have addressed this research area and its questions through examination of published EC literature combined with empirical study. I observed in the contexts of the churches in this case study that the EC is appropriating the Orthodox icon by investing this practice with their own theological content. While the thick description approach I am taking shows the depth of this appropriation and reinterpretation, it does not exhaust the breadth of appropriation and reinterpretation. A quantitative study would be necessary to address that research direction. My intent is to examine how the use and perception of icons change in their transplantation to a new social environment. The key characteristic of the original social environment is the overall interpretive framework of Eastern Orthodox mystical theology. Consequently, difficulties would likely attend any transfer of such practices to a subsection of Christian faith relatively unfamiliar with that mystical tradition. The EC is not particularly distinctive in this regard, since Protestants in general have difficulty here too.11 To approach icons in this way, I will first briefly consider the development of the practice and theology of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church prior to sections on the methodology and results of the case study. Then, discussion of these contexts are compared and contrasted for the purpose of proving whether or not the EC is appropriating the Orthodox icon by investing this practice with their own theological content.


In order to examine the process of borrowing icons fruitfully, beginning with their role in Eastern Orthodox life is a necessary step. The icon is so much more than a work of art for Eastern Orthodox Christians; rather, it is an "instrument" for God to communicate to the believer.12 This knowledge is mysterious by nature and resists easy definition, but it is one of the most accessible ways to God in Eastern Orthodox thought. Additionally, it stands as a tangible statement concerning the holiness of the material world and the presence of spirit within matter. In other words, praying with icons is viewed sacramentally in Eastern Orthodoxy. This sacramental aspect is not limited to the believing participant in prayer. Connections are formed among the iconographer who is "writing" the icon, the person in prayer, and the divine. The centrality of icons [End Page 84] within Orthodox prayer is representational of their role in the higher echelons of Orthodox theology. However, it is interesting to note, particularly in our look at the spiritual borrowing of this practice from the Orthodox, that the Orthodox are borrowers themselves of the use of icons.

The use of icons in prayer and worship is inextricably linked to Eastern Orthodox spiritual practice today; yet, "the icon first appears in paganism," and the use of icons, and statuary, were common in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religion long before the life of Christ.13 This provenance for the icon offers precedence to the borrowing of icons today by the EC from Eastern Orthodox Christianity. While the Orthodox, however, acknowledge their borrowing from paganism, later spiritual borrowing is not necessarily given a stamp of approval. Iconology within paganism is treated by Orthodoxy similarly to the insights of Greek philosophers. Their insights to "truth" are explained in terms of still belonging to Christianity, and specifically Orthodoxy, as a type of "Christianity before Christ."14 Subsequent borrowing of spiritual practices would have to be justified for the Orthodox on a different basis since Christ has already come. Still, Orthodox borrowing does not stop at the surface of pagan iconology; rather, it extends down deeply to the use of color, symbol, and even the planar geometry of the images themselves.15 The ways in which the borrowed practice of praying with icons has taken root in Eastern Orthodoxy digs down into the heart of theology for this religion.

From a theological perspective, icons are at the center of Orthodox thought as well as Orthodox practice. This point can scarcely be overstated because Eastern Orthodox theology can accurately be divided into two major subheadings when viewed historically: dogmatic and iconographic. Eastern Orthodox theologians specifically place the icon on par with the Cross and the Gospel, following the decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787 C.E., Second Council of Nicaea), in its ability to communicate the revelation and will of God to humanity. In addition to this level of authority, the role of the icon in Eastern Orthodoxy is tied to the central doctrine of Christian theology: the Incarnation of God as Jesus of Nazareth. Specifically, the icon is "inherent in the very essence of Christianity, from its inception, since Christianity is the revelation by God-Man not only of the Word of God, but also of the Image of God."16 Interestingly, this practice, this borrowed spiritual practice, finds its new home at the heart of Christian theology, and icons won this place with no little amount of conflict and controversy.

The role of icons within the faith of Eastern Orthodoxy may be uncontestably fundamental in the present, but that place was not always such a foregone conclusion. The Seventh Ecumenical Council ended the iconoclastic controversies in which Christians passionately defended the use of icons as sacrosanct to their faith on one hand, and vehemently denounced their use as [End Page 85] utterly demonic on the other. Icon usage reached a high degree of theological sophistication through the subtle distinctions of veneration (proskynesis) and worship (latreia).17 Only worship belonged to God; however, veneration could be extended to one's elders, political authorities, and icons. In fact, veneration extends beyond veneration of the object of the icon to a reverence for the process by which it was created. These distinctions are evident in the final decree of the council along with other essential Eastern Orthodox beliefs on icons.18 Once these particularly precise understandings were parsed out by the eighth century, the use of icons was set in the foundation needed to extend toward another central doctrine of Orthodoxy: the role of matter in spirituality.

Eastern Orthodoxy rooted its sacramentalism in the use of icons. In following this thread of discussion, it is important to note that Eastern Orthodoxy rooted sacramentalism within a borrowed practice. Not only did they view the borrowing of a spiritual practice as legitimate, new theology could sprout from the transplant. Through this lens, the iconoclastic controversy was concerned vitally with the connectedness of matter and spirit within Christianity, both East and West. Saint John of Damascus lends theological concision to this concept: "I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake."19 Building on this basis, Eastern Orthodox Christians blamed the iconoclasts for an over-spiritualizing heresy that denigrated the material world and the God incarnate who took on flesh and lived among the common person. As a spiritual practice, the Eastern Orthodox use of icons retains this deeply sacramental theology, for icons are viewed as a transitional place where heaven and earth (spirit and matter) meet. It is through this transitional role that an icon becomes the "locus of encounter" between the Eastern Orthodox believer and God.20

Through this role in encounter, it becomes evident that the spiritual practice of icons has much to say on an anthropological basis, as well as a theological one. The basis for an anthropology of icons is still firmly rooted in the theological doctrine of the divine Incarnation, for Jesus is the ultimate icon of God to humanity.21 Interestingly, this theological connection offers the logical justification for icons which appears on the surface to contradict Christian and biblical assertions that God cannot be depicted. To wit, "if Jesus was indeed truly human, we can represent his human nature as with any other member of the human race."22 However, the result of this connection is not merely an iconographic Christology; rather, it is a connection to an iconographic anthropology as well. These connections are hinted at as early as the first chapter of Genesis, in which humanity is formed in the image of God, but humans become icons of God more specifically through the presence of Christ as both human and divine. Therefore, icons are transitional places or windows into heaven which are gateways because of the humanity of God and the divinity [End Page 86] of humans present in Jesus Christ. The theological embeddedness of icons does have important insights for the process of spiritual borrowing, particularly for the possibility of transmitting theology through ritualistic behavior alone. However, there are still some important connections to address of a more mundane nature. The icon's role within the daily religious behavior of the typical Orthodox believer is considered. Also, the obstacles in the way of the icon when moving from Eastern Orthodoxy to Protestantism requires comment.

Icons follow an Eastern Orthodox believer all of his or her life. At baptism, the initiate, or child, is given an icon, at a wedding the fathers of bride and groom give icons as blessings, and the icon received by the believer at baptism precedes the funeral procession at death.23 In a tangible way, these windows into heaven walk the lonely paths of life with each Orthodox Christian. As a partner in life, the icon may serve a memento-like role, yet its role only begins at that point. As part of Damascus' defense against iconoclasts, he strongly asserts the analogical nature of icons. The familiar expresses the extraordinary in an understandable idiom, and icons serve that purpose as "books for the illiterate and silent heralds of the honor of the saints, teaching those who see with a soundless voice and sanctifying the sight."24 An additional educational value of icons is hinted at in the popular references of "writing" and "reading" for the activities of painting an icon and praying with an icon respectively. In this analogy, the icon stands for the average Orthodox Christian as a "permanent . . . open book" in addition to the more esoteric "window to heaven."25 Whether as analogy, educational aid, constant friend, or height of theological revelation, the spiritual use of icons is Orthodox through and through, and it is this "essence" of Eastern Orthodoxy that has caused problems for Protestant Christians who want to borrow and connect the use of icons to their own religious forms.

Historically, Protestants have misunderstood icons; at least, they have misunderstood the role of icons in Eastern Orthodoxy. While Protestants have, in recent times, expressed curiosity concerning icons, they lack the sacramental framework to make sense of using icons in prayer.26 As a result, Protestants have viewed icons through a rigidly Old Testament lens of the condemnation of "graven" images, but the misapprehension of the Eastern Orthodox icon cuts deeper theologically than a surface adherence to one of the Ten Commandments. On one side, there is little incentive for reaching out to Protestantism on the part of Eastern Orthodoxy, as only Orthodox believers have a "right" to icons in the current purview of the Eastern Church.27 While that prohibition may come across as elitist, it is the normative assertion of the inextricable link between the spiritual use of icons and Orthodox sacramentalism. In other words, since most of Protestantism lacks a robust sacramental theology, the use of icons would be misinterpreted as the "idolatry" which [End Page 87] Protestants seek to guard against in avoiding icons. The premise of idolatry might be faulty; however, Protestant belief walls off access to the premise of sacramental theology which would lead to the logical conclusion. While this particular problem only stands on circular reasoning, other issues are not so easily dismissed. Protestants, especially Protestant evangelicals, are crucicentrically minded. With such an emphasis on the sacrifice of Christ, comparatively little emphasis remains for spiritual practices which center on the presence of Christ in the here and now, particularly when that presence extends to the sacralization of matter, as the underpinnings of iconology do. Protestants have deep theological reservations when an icon is touted as more than a picture, as something that "is also a bearer of God's power."28 So, the deep theological connections which root icons at the heart of Eastern Orthodox life and theology also bar them from ready acceptance into Protestant theology. However, at least one offshoot from the Protestant root, the EC, is borrowing and interpreting icons in interesting ways.

I present my research as an examination of this development. Before going further, I offer the observation that the door does not swing both ways. The EC is borrowing the use of icons on their own through no formal connection with Eastern Orthodoxy. As the foregoing theological sketch illustrates, Eastern Orthodox Christians view the spiritual use of icons as an inseparable part of a highly developed spiritual theology. From that viewpoint, icons cannot be sectioned off piecemeal by Protestants in general or the EC in particular without accepting the whole of Orthodox theology by becoming Orthodox themselves. Hence, as the case study results are examined, it is important to acknowledge that borrowing and reinterpretation flow, in this instance, is one direction only.


Prior to discussing the individual churches, it is valuable to note that these three churches can be lined up on a conceptual continuum. On one end of the continuum lies a strongly positive identification with the EC conversation, engagement with EC literature and/or authors, and an overt desire to embrace the concept of postmodernity. On the other end, lies an ambivalent identification with the EC conversation, passing familiarity with EC literature and/or authors, and a readiness to engage with postmodernity while not necessarily embracing it. When quotations are utilized from specific participants here and throughout the study, interviewees are referred to by a designated pseudonym rather than by actual name in order to preserve the privacy of each participant. Churches are profiled here on the basis of chronological visit. Sources for this information include interview data, website or blog entries, sermon recordings, and field-note observations. [End Page 88]

The first church visited was Riverside Community Church (RCC), located in the greater area of San Antonio, Texas, (approximately twenty miles from downtown San Antonio). This church was by far the largest of the three (averaging two hundred members between the two services each Sunday). It was also the most typically suburban and affluent.29 While the leadership of this church strongly identified as emergent, occasional resistance and/or ignorance of the term emergent was displayed among church members, and the term emerging was only slightly more preferable. Additionally, while the church did self-identify, particularly through the pastor, as interested in "ancient paths" (term used by the pastor to talk about spiritual and mystical practices), they tended to identify this interest as an engagement with the Hebrew Root movement rather than a strong connection with the Christian mystical tradition.30 As a result, there was relatively less interest in using icons here than in the other churches. Viewed on the aforementioned continuum, this church comprised the far end toward engagement and away from embracing. It should be remembered that this church represents the closest kinship with its evangelical ancestor among the case studies, yet individuals still felt free to experiment with various mystic practices which arise out of a Christian tradition quite different from their own. While RCC displayed some qualities in kinship with the next church investigated, there were also notable differences.

The next site visited was Emmaus Road Church (ERC) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This church met on Saturday nights because they had developed out of a Saturday night service at their parent church, The Life Connection. Originally, ERC was a ministry to the youth of the parent church. Approximately thirty to forty people regularly attended this church, and it was interestingly split among attendees in their twenties and several persons who were over sixty. At the time of the visit, ERC had recently established a permanent presence in downtown Tulsa by renting office space and converting it into an environment suited to their particular congregational desires, as described in the opening of this article.31 This church showed much greater acknowledgment of engagement with Christian mysticism. For instance, there was a specific position for a pastor of spiritual formation and liturgy, and another pastor had recently finished a degree in sacramental theology. Icons were utilized in a more prominent role within ERC than in RCC. While this group was comfortable with emerging terminology, many lay members were still hesitant to claim an emergent label. With respect to the continuum among case study churches, ERC represents a mid-point. A willingness to experiment was notably evident among interview participants. This focus on experimentation becomes even more noticeable in the final case study.

The final church visited was Church in the Cliff (CitC). This church is located in Dallas, Texas, specifically in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, which is [End Page 89] considered an "inner-city" or disadvantaged urban neighborhood within Dallas. This church was active with respect to social justice and ecological issues within their community, particularly concerning urban farming and buying fair trade or locally grown items. Additionally, they greatly stressed inclusion with a focus on gender and sexual orientation inclusivity. Interview participants disliked the term "member," and CitC did not have a formal membership status of any sort.32 This disdain for labels carried over in many directions, unless they were allowed to coin the term or phrase themselves, such as "ecumergent," "Buddheo-Christian," and "a drinking club with a Jesus problem." CitC did not use icons more often than ERC, but there was much greater range of expression and experimentation when they were used. With respect to the continuum among case study churches, CitC represents the pole of embracing. Within this church, there are substantial marks of alignment with the EC conversation, yet multiple interviewees still only hesitantly embraced this label due to their strong dislike for labeling. As the church which most fully embraced postmodern identity and participation in the EC conversation, it will likely come as no surprise that this church had also experimented most with individual mystic practices, including icons. They also embraced the irony of rejecting the conventions and tradition of Evangelical Protestantism by engaging with the even more conventional and traditional heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy. However, engagement with icons did not always lead to assimilation or even a detailed understanding of a practice for those who engaged it once or twice only within a corporate setting. The results of the study on the appropriation and reinterpretation of icons brings this development into greater relief.


While the principal findings of the study arose from the empirical portion of the study, some comments from EC literature intimated the potential for appropriation and reinterpretation. Particularly, EC authors advocate the utilization of icons in prayer with a fascinating juxtaposition of focus on the reclamation of an ancient art form and gateway to mystical experience alongside a focus on postmodern interpretations of symbolism.33 This juxtaposition is due to a fluid definition of icons within the EC. The EC defined icon as any form of art used for an expressly spiritual purpose, usually as an aid to prayer. In this sense, icons are interpreted by the EC in a contemplative manner, yet they lack the sacramental theology to situate icons analogous to the Eastern Orthodox perspective. EC leader Tony Jones illustrates an alternate connection in comparing the purpose of an icon in prayer with the purpose of the Bible as a means through which God can speak to the worshipper, using an analogy that would strike a chord with any evangelical.34 Additional connotations are attached to icons, reinterpreting the value and import of the practice [End Page 90] for implementation. For example, Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer do not directly connect the use of icons to prayer; instead, they view icons through the lens of postmodern recovery of symbol. According to these authors, the true value of an icon lies within its symbolic power, for "[s] ymbols are thick texts that mediate our understanding and experience of the world."35 They also extend this symbolic sense of icon to shift the locus of meaning from mystic ascent to God to an outward communitarian look.36 The empirical research revealed that interpretation of icons followed vaguely along these lines, however with more of a pragmatic basis and far less engagement with theological values whether Orthodox, Protestant, or postmodern.

The importance of the physical element among the studied ECs allowed for greater experimentation with icons than would be expected in churches arising from an evangelical heritage. While it is noteworthy that icons are a spiritual option at all among the case study churches, they have not been incorporated to a large extent. Indeed, icons were only considered by interviewees in two contexts: a background option for corporate worship and a personal option for experimentation.

In a communal context, icons received continued corporate use only at ERC. Within this context, they were utilized in one of two ways. First, they were intermittently used as a background during communal meetings, as noted briefly by Cesar: "I noticed at Emmaus Road, sometimes, whenever they'll have a projection on the screen, maybe with a song or a Scripture, maybe while [the pastor] or someone else is sharing, there might be an icon back there." For many respondents, that minimal use was the only one which they could recall. In addition to this modest use, a second way in which ERC utilized icons was through their prayer station. Troy noted the availability of this option in the following terms: "I was thinking of our prayer station that we have off to the side. Yeah, and so there is one there. And, that's part of the experience, if someone goes over and decides to use that station." While this interviewee noted the accessibility of this option, he never attested to availing himself of it. As these uses display, there was not much intentional engagement with icons on a corporate level in the ECs studied, but there was a higher level of usage of this mystic practice on an individual basis.

On a personal level, multiple interviewees noted experimentation with icons. For one respondent, experimentation included creation of an icon. Cesar related this experience in the following way: "I actually made an icon. Because we have a prayer station at Emmaus Road. I just out of fun, decided to make an icon." While this option seemed open to anyone, other interviewees from this context only noted use of icons already created rather than participating in the process of icon creation. These respondents acknowledged a focusing or centering aspect to the process of using icons, but they tended to restrict this [End Page 91] aspect to the context of personal prayer. Helga approached this perspective by explaining, "They're [icons] just certain things that I use that just remind me of the things that fill my spirit or give me strength spiritually. When I'm praying, I won't sit directly in front of things or anything, but there's just certain things that I'll use when I'm praying in my home." Through this perspective, it is apparent how interviewees could experiment with how icons might fit into their own personal prayer practices. As noted with regard to EC literature, it did not appear that they felt limited to traditional icons; rather, the use of any image within prayer seemed to be subsumed under the term icon. In fact, one respondent felt free to include religious quotes as icons as well. Freedom of interpretation reigned in tandem with freedom to practice with respect to icons.

Concerning reinterpretation, practitioners who utilized icons within their prayers invested the theological value of community into their appropriation of this mystic practice. Particularly, Jim related the sense of an icon in the following way:

This is a person who has gone before me that's part of my family, that's still in some ways, still present, because I believe that the curtain between this world and the next is a lot thinner than a lot of people think, and so thinking of them in terms of this is a way for me to communicate in one way, but also just celebrate and appreciate those that have gone before me, the cloud of witnesses and put an image to that.

Icons, in this perspective, had the primary purpose of connecting the individual in the EC with the larger faith community, including those members of the community who were no longer alive. The pastor of one of the case study churches used the metaphor of "family photos" to illustrate the prominence of the community connection in the theological investments made from his church into the practice of icons. While this theological nuance is not absent in the traditional use of icons, EC practitioners emphasized this communitarian aspect.

Still, appropriation of icons was done primarily on an experimental foundation for personal expression. I was surprised to discover that "experimentation" stood out as a theological value all its own, which participants invested into their use of icons and other mystic practices. For instance, Cesar outlined his theological purpose in using icons through analogy by stating, "The way I participate in them is no different from like a 12 year old having a picture of a body builder up in their bedroom. It's a goal. They look up to that body builder, maybe, they work out, and they try to become just like him." Kent points out a similar connection in describing his use of icons: [End Page 92]

I honestly have no idea how they're used in the Eastern church. I shouldn't say I have no idea; I've read about it, but, it's not something I get. But, something about contemplating the icon, it's like it opens a door in my mind somehow, and sometimes I try to always know the story behind whatever is depicted. So, sometimes, that's what I don't want to say "ruminate" on because it's not like I'm sitting there thinking about it, but I just sort of imbibe the stories and live with them, just sit with them for a while, and the icon helps me focus on that.

So, while this respondent was aware of other contexts and purposes for this practice, they had little bearing on his appropriation and reinterpretation; rather, personal value for the practice that had proven useful through experimentation took center stage in his description of purpose. As a result, experimentation allowed Kent to appropriate the use of icons, and this "anchor" also was invested by him into the practice to give it theological meaning. In the course of conversation, Kent provided the term anchor as a preferable synonym for a unique theological theme. EC participants did not favor more traditional terms such as belief, doctrine, dogma, fundamental, tenet, or proposition. Therefore, I found that anchor was an appropriate term to use to help define EC theological interpretation. Accordingly, the theological value invested in the anchor of experimentation necessitated reinterpretation to fit the borrowed practice into the new context.


The results of this study revealed some interesting lines of development which deserve further discussion beyond the findings themselves. This examination of the spiritual borrowing process of icons for the EC draws into relief the major theological anchors which are foundational for their conversation as a newly forming tradition. After some brief comments in that direction, the discussion will turn to comparing and contrasting directly the theology of the EC as it relates to icons and Eastern Orthodox iconology. The insights from this comparison will then guide the discussion into a broader conceptual look into the questions of the neutrality of spiritual practices and the borrowing process as informing the permeability of religious boundaries. These comments on neutrality and contrasting theologies will then lead to some relevant conclusions for this foray into spiritual borrowing.

EC appropriation of icons and theological reinterpretation of their use proceed on the basis of two anchors: community and experimentation. The anchor of community in empirical examination mapped rather neatly to the assertions of EC literature. Simply put, whether viewed literarily or empirically, EC participants are interested in community. While interviewed and observed individuals did value community over individuality similarly to what was [End Page 93] described in literary discussions, the role of this anchor in the appropriation of mystic practices became more clear. Empirically, a high theological value on community allowed for looking at other traditions, but the actual process of appropriation was performed practically through the individual EC participants in a congregation. In other words, the theological anchor of community allowed for looking at other traditions specifically through tolerance of and interest in what each individual brought to the EC. This progression was not as fully defined in EC literature,37 and it may seem to be a minor difference, yet it sheds light on why the EC appropriates mystic practices in the eclectic ways in which they do. Spiritual practices become subjects for appropriation through the value which the EC assigns to every person in their community. The inestimable value of each person allows the consideration of whatever spiritual practices he or she brings to the table.

Locating theological value in persons rather than doctrine in this, admittedly, limited example shows promise because it offers a concrete snapshot of a grass-roots, bottom-up approach to developing theology. While community definitely maps to icon appropriation on the basis of allowing, it offers more information concerning exactly how such theological permission leads to theological interpretation.

Distinctively, case study churches emphasized greatly an anchor of theological experimentation, which was not as prominent a theme in the literature. While there are definite points of contact between community and experimentation, the balance of emphasis is shifted. Interviewees remarked that experimentation and personal relevance was strongly ascendant over any other conceptual relationship. Marjorie gave a representative articulation of this viewpoint by saying:

I tend to reflect a lot on why I would use these [practices of silence and solitude], so I tend to have more of a thoughtful like, "Oh, there's an ecumenical value here." But, it's interesting to see how little that plays into people's choices, I think, of spiritual disciplines. I find more and more that it tends to be like, "This seems to work for me." So, [people respond more] like, "We're sticking to that," and less, "Oh, I've always been curious to see what the Anglicans do."

As this quote illustrates, EC interviewees were not wholly unaware or specifically rejecting the historical provenance of icons, then again tradition and history were not limiting factors. This situation was a result of the freedom they felt to reinterpret practices to fit their own needs through the high value they assign to each person. Additional support for this tendency is also illustrated in that spiritual practice appropriation did not just occur for them from among Christian traditions. They also felt free to assimilate practices from religious [End Page 94] traditions outside the umbrella of Christianity. For instance, respondents commented spontaneously on the assimilation of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish practices without any specific prompting from an interview question, and they did not view appropriation of practices as only limited to these additional religions. Importantly, the anchor of experimentation mapped more strongly than any other theological purpose to the process of spiritual borrowing. These values of community and experimentation, with community value inextricably linked to experimentation, contrast strongly with Eastern Orthodox theological investments in the spiritual practice of icons.

EC anchors of community and experimentation are notably indistinct values when contrasted with the sharp lines present in Eastern Orthodox iconology. The spiritual practice of icons is deeply embedded in Orthodox theology through a sacramental view of the world and in connection with the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ. Orthodoxy also has the advantage of a long history to tease out subtle distinctions of worship and veneration and then to employ icons in multiple ritualistic aspects of daily life. As such, icons in Eastern Orthodox perspective are "windows into heaven" and "ministers of the power of God" to the prayer participant from birth to death. This sophisticated theology works out to a divinized anthropology as well. The two natures of Christ, in theological terms, allow for the portrayal of God in image, and this belief also carries with it the corollary of humanity as an icon of God through the human nature of Jesus. This complicated process is both cause and fulfillment of the destiny intimated in the book of Genesis when humanity is created in God's "image." Comparatively speaking, Eastern Orthodox theology of icons can be typified by the terms used here: complicated, sophisticated, complex; even as, EC theology of icons remains fuzzy, indistinct, and experimental. Comparison of the two viewpoints show great dissimilarity, especially for two traditions within the same religion: Christianity. Yet, they both use icons. So what can we make of the borrowing of that practice that might be useful for a larger discussion on spiritual borrowing?

The major insight of this exploration is that in this case, theological boundaries did not stand as barriers to borrowing of spiritual practices. While it is necessary to consider the potential objection concerning this example as intra-religious in nature, the foregoing discussion highlights that there are such deep differences between the theology of Eastern Orthodoxy and the EC that there is only a slight difference in this intra-religious example and many inter-religious ones. Still, the next logical step from the research findings is to examine whether the same result would hold true in an interfaith context.

Another possible objection might be leveled at the particular nature of the EC. For instance, the EC may appropriate and reinterpret in such a way, but how does that apply to other traditions? That is a valid criticism, yet it could [End Page 95]

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Annunciation. © 2005 by Clyde Rausch, OMI.

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Jesus in the Temple. © 2002 by Clyde Rausch, OMI

[End Page 96] likely be leveled at any specific example of spiritual borrowing. Interestingly, the EC stands out as unique in this regard. The EC is at an early stage of doctrinal development. Many theological emphases in the conversation can go in various directions. Such an expression of this "fuzziness" is how appropriation and reinterpretation of icons is not tied to the foundation of well-defined doctrines, rather, to the broad concepts of community and experimentation. Since many religious traditions value some form of the concepts of community and experimentation, the possibility exists for a broader application of the insights here beyond the scope of the EC.

If theological boundaries might not preclude this type of borrowing, what does that say about the role of theology for spiritual practices? I assert that these specific findings suggest that spiritual practices, in this case, writing and reading icons, may have a significant degree of neutrality. Icons were viewed by the EC as unaligned containers which can be divested of previous theological content and invested with new content. Does this perspective work in other contexts? The present case suggests a positive answer to this question, and it is buttressed by the fact that millennia ago Christianity similarly borrowed icons from Greco-Roman paganism. In fact, the neutrality of icons is increasingly likely because the evangelical background of the EC should theologically bias them against the use of icons. Instead, it does not represent a significant obstacle to experimentation. Additionally, the EC has no reservations with investing their highly individualized meanings into the practice of icons, even when they know that a long history and intricate theology of icon usage exists concerning the "correct" method for praying with them. These insights lead to some interesting conclusions, or at least directions, for the general process of spiritual borrowing and the permeability of religious boundaries.


In drawing lines of discussion to a close, the main thrust of this article has been the illustration of the process of a spiritual practice borrowed from one tradition by another in a present, developing religious context as a neutral container to be divested and invested with theological content as needed. With respect to the EC, appropriation of icons first became theologically valuable because each person who aligns with an EC community is viewed as a valuable combination of experience and knowledge. Reinterpretation then proceeded on this basis of personal value over systematic consistency. It is important to note at this juncture that individuals brought whatever their experience reflected to the process of spiritual borrowing. Icons were only one example, and mystic practices are only one possible group for appropriation.

Building on this basis, the second observation is the crux of the reasoning behind mystic practice appropriation for the EC as empirically investigated. [End Page 97] The interviewed practitioners displayed the ascendancy of experimentation as a theological value. Freedom in reinterpretation was based on experimentation as primary for spiritual borrowing, and it is best encapsulated in the "whatever works" mentality noted above by Marjorie. This point is in contrast to EC literary output which viewed community as more important. However, this drive to customize one's spiritual experience fits neatly with the value of each individual-in-community. In conclusion, icons were appropriated on the basis of experimentation through a perspective that EC practitioners are appropriating a practice as a container which can then be "emptied" of old theology and "filled" with new content which reflects their own distinctions. Consequently, the central observation of the study is the confirmation that the EC is appropriating the Orthodox icon by investing this practice with their own theological content.

Thus, this article contributes to the investigation of spiritual borrowing by illustrating an in-depth case study of the process of a mystic practice moving from one tradition to another. In the purview of theology, this detailed analysis of the process of appropriation and reinterpretation of icons has displayed the relationship of the practice to both the source of Eastern Orthodoxy and the new context of the EC. Close scrutiny of the spiritual borrowing process and these theological connections displays effectively how a spiritual practice can be changed when divested of theological content, and then filled with new theological content in a specific instance.

In light of this conclusion concerning the specific case of icons and the EC, what can we learn or predict concerning the larger context of spiritual borrowing? Interestingly, the empirical findings of this study suggest that the basis for borrowing the "container" of icons is not a theological belief; rather, the EC borrows on a pragmatic basis. The desire to experiment, to try new things, to see what works is the initial connection for the EC spiritual borrowers who participated in the study. While the objection may be voiced that this result is only applicable to this specific case, the evidence of the "fuzziness" of EC theology to focus simply on experimentation suggests that the results are connected causally to the practical act of experimentation, not to the EC. In other words, a willingness to experiment may be a general catalyst for spiritual borrowing. This process is so clear in the EC because they are so eager to experiment. Following this line of probability, spiritual borrowing in this situational context starts on an anthropological, not theological, basis. Could an anthropological basis be the foundation for other cases of spiritual borrowing, interreligious as well as intra-religious? The observed neutrality of the container of spiritual practice, even a practice like icons that is so deeply associated with a specific tradition, suggests that direction. [End Page 98]

Another benefit of this case study in spiritual borrowing concerns the permeability of religious boundaries. If icons can move to the EC from Eastern Orthodox bastions of sophisticated iconology, with any parochial doctrines being reinterpreted along the way, then what might be said about the solidity of religious boundaries? Might these boundaries be less concrete than typically asserted? This test case in spiritual borrowing suggests that religious boundaries, like the spiritual practices which move so easily between them, are based more on human categorization than divine edict. While further study is obviously necessary, this perspective has considerable value for ecumenical discussion. Simply put, the results indicate that starting dialogue in a deductive mode, beginning with abstract matters of theology and philosophy, might not be as fruitful as an inductive model, focusing on the concrete practices and building "up" from there. In this case, at least, religious boundaries are more permeable than doctrinal sticklers would have us believe. If we consider the possibility that spiritual borrowing is more of an anthropological endeavor than a theological task, then the tangible links formed between religious traditions through borrowing might be viewed as a shared foundation to begin the task of theology in common rather than behind the trenches of "my" religion against "your" religion. At least, it is certainly a good place to begin a conversation. [End Page 99]

Dann Wigner

Dann Wigner is adjunct professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University and instruction and information literacy librarian at the University of the South. He is a graduate of the University of Durham (UK) in the field of mystical theology. He has two books currently in-process for publication: A Sociology of Mystic Practices: Use and Adaptation in the Emergent Church and Just Begin: A Sourcebook of Spiritual Practices.


1. Ian Dey, Qualitative Data Analysis: A User-Friendly Guide for Social Scientists (London, U.K.: Routledge, 1998), 3.

2. Paul D. Leedy and Jeanne Ellis Ormrod, Practical Research: Planning and Design, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2001), 102–103.

3. Colin Robson, Real World Research: A Resource for Social Scientists and Practitioner-Researchers, 2nd ed. (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2002), 186.

4. Sharan B. Merriam, "Case Study," in Qualitative Research in Practice: Examples for Discussion and Analysis, ed. Sharan B. Merriam (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 178–180, at 178.

5. Leedy and Ormrod, Practical Research, 151.

6. Leedy and Ormrod, Practical Research, 153. The "particular situation" in this context is the implementation of various mystic practices within the EC spiritual context.

7. Geoffrey Pearson, Foreword to Interpreting the Field: Accounts of Ethnography, eds. Dick Hobbs and Tim May (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon, 1993), vii-xx, at viii.

8. Jennifer Mason, Qualitative Researching (London, U.K.: Sage, 1996), 60.

9. Pauline Boss, Carla Dahl, and Lori Kaplan, "The Use of Phenomenology for Family Therapy Research: The Search for Meaning," in Research Methods in Family Therapy, eds. Sidney M. Moon and Douglas H. Sprenkle (New York: The Guildford Press, 1996), 83–106, at 95.

10. Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 54–55.

11. Doug Gay, Remixing the Church: The Five Moves of Emerging Ecclesiology (London: SCM Press, 2011), 53.

12. Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert, Windows to Heaven: Introducing Icons to Protestants and Catholics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2005), 22.

13. Sergiĭ Bulgakov, Icons and the Name of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2012), 3.

14. Bulgakov, Icons and the Name of God, 4. See also Justin Martyr, "The First Apology," in The Christianity Reader, eds. Mary Gerhart and Fabian E. Udoh (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2007), Section 5, 229–235, at 230.

15. Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1991), 101–106.

16. Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, trans. G.E.H. Palmer (Boston, Mass.: Boston Book & Art, 1956), 27.

17. Zelensky and Gilbert, Windows to Heaven, 24.

18. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 14 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 550.

19. Saint John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003), Treatise 1.16, 29.

20. Cornelia A. Tsakiridou, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2013), 209.

21. Bulgakov, Icons and the Name of God, 119.

22. Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004), xiv-xv.

23. Quenot, The Icon, 43.

24. Saint John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, Treatise 1.47, 46.

25. Ambrosios Giakalis, Images of the Divine: The Theology of Icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Boston, Mass.: Brill, 2005), 54.

26. Zelensky and Gilbert, Windows to Heaven, 15.

27. Giakalis, Images of the Divine, 62–63.

28. Bulgakov, Icons and the Name of God, 125.

29. Demographic information for interview participants was gathered on the following markers: age, highest education level completed, ethnicity, gender, profession, income, marital status, and number and age of children. Notable demographic characteristics include a higher than expected average age among interviewees of 47 (range 22–65), almost exclusive ethnic representation as "white" or "Caucasian" (16 participants), and an income noticeably higher than the national average (RCC average = $158,636; U.S. national average = $50,054). Compare to U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, 2011), 5.

30. Ray Vander Laan, That the World May Know Ministries, "RVL." Last modified 2011. Accessed January 30, 2014,

31. Demographic information for interview participants was gathered on the following markers: age, highest education level completed, ethnicity, gender, profession, income, marital status, and number and age of children. Notable demographic characteristics include great disparity in ages among participants (average = 35; range = 16–68; no interviewees between the ages of 27 and 60), greater ethnic diversity (including Jewish, Iranian, and Latino), a lower average income status than the previous case study church, and a preponderance of single persons without children (7 out of 10 interviewees).

32. Notable demographic characteristics include the highest levels of education among participants in a case study church (one PhD, eight master's degrees), more balanced ethnic representation of the two largest ethnic groups composing the region (Caucasian and Hispanic), a high percentage of individuals involved in non-profit organizations (45%), and a notable proportion of married couples without children (36%).

33. Tony Jones, The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 98.

34. Jones, The Sacred Way, 102.

35. Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren, and Jerry Haselmayer, "A" is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003), 151.

36. Sweet, McLaren, and Haselmayer, "A" is for Abductive, 152.

37. Kathy Smith, "Training Wheels," Congregations 39.3 (2012): 18–20, at 19.

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