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In His Image
By Paul Brand Philip Yancey
ZondervanCopyright © 2008 Paul Brand and Philip Yancey
All right reserved.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! William Shakespeare
* * *
Curtains screened my group of ten interns and medical students from the rest of the forty-bed ward. Externally, the Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore resembled a modern Western facility, but inside it was all Indian. Activity throbbed just beyond our curtain: patients' families bringing in home-cooked food and nurses chasing away the scavengers that followed - crows and an occasional monkey.
Those of us inside the curtains, however, were giving full attention to our young colleague as he made his diagnosis. He was half-kneeling, in the posture I had taught him, with his warm hand slipped under the sheet and resting on the patient's bare abdomen. While his fingers probed gently for telltale signs of distress, he continued a line of questioning that showed he was weighing the possibility of appendicitis against an ovarian infection.
Suddenly something caught my eye - a slight twitch of movement on the intern's face. Was it the eyebrow arching upward? A vague memory stirred in my mind, but one I could not fully recall. His questions were leading into a delicate area, especially for demure Hindu society. Had the woman ever been exposed to a venereal infection? The intern's facial muscles contracted into an expression combining sympathy, inquisitiveness, and disarming warmth as he looked straight in the patient's face and asked the questions. His very countenance coaxed the woman to relax, put aside the awkwardness, and tell us the truth.
At that moment my memory snapped into place. Of course! The left eyebrow cocked up with the right one trailing down, the wry, enticing smile, the head tilted to one side, the twinkling eyes - these were unmistakably the features of my old chief surgeon in London, Professor Robin Pilcher. I sucked in my breath sharply and exclaimed. The students looked up, startled by my reaction. I could not help it; it seemed as if the intern had studied Professor Pilcher's face for an acting audition and was now drawing from his repertoire to impress me.
Answering their questioning looks, I explained myself. "That is the face of my old chief! What a coincidence - you have exactly the same expression, yet you've never been to England and Pilcher certainly has never visited India."
At first the students stared at me in confused silence. Finally two or three of them grinned. "We don't know any Professor Pilcher," one said. "But Dr. Brand, that was your expression he was wearing."
Later that evening, alone in my office, I thought back to my days under Pilcher. I had thought I was learning from him techniques of surgery and diagnostic procedures. But he had also imprinted his instincts, his expression, his very smile so that they too would be passed down from generation to generation in an unbroken human chain. It was a kindly smile, perfect for cutting through the fog of embarrassment to encourage a patient's honesty. What textbook or computer program could have charted out the facial expression needed at that exact moment within the curtain?
Now I, Pilcher's student, had become a link in the chain, a carrier of his wisdom to students some nine thousand miles away. The Indian doctor, young and brown-skinned, speaking in Tamil, shared few obvious resemblances with either Pilcher or me. Yet somehow he had conveyed the likeness of my old chief so accurately that it had transported me back to university days with a start. The thought gave me a crystalline insight into the concept of image.
* * *
The word image is familiar to us today, but the meaning of the word has leaked away so that now it connotes virtually the opposite of its former meaning of "likeness." Today, a politician hires an image-maker, a job applicant dresses for image, a corporation seeks the right image. In all these usages, image has come to mean the illusion of what something is presented to be, rather than the essence of what it really is.
In this book entitled In His Image I want to reinforce the original meaning of image as an exact likeness, not a deceptive illusion. We must return to the concept of likeness to understand the "image of God" we are intended to carry. Glimpses into that former meaning still endure. For instance, when I gaze at a nerve cell through a scanning electron microscope, I study the neuron's image. I am looking not at the neuron itself - its small size precludes that - but at a reassembled image that faithfully reproduces it for my eye. In this case the image enhances, rather than distorts, the essence of the cell.
Similarly, photographers use the word image to describe their finished product. The image of a sequoia redwood grove flattened onto a small black-and-white rectangle surely does not express the totality of the original, but when developed by a master like Ansel Adams it may convey the original essence with great force.
Or, think of a ten-pound bundle of protoplasm squirming fitfully in a blanket. The baby's father weighs fifteen times as much and has a vastly larger range of ability and personality. Yet the mother announces proudly that the baby is the "spitting image" of his father. A visitor peers closely. Yes, a resemblance does exist, evident now in a dimple, slightly flared nostrils, a peculiar earlobe. Before long, mannerisms of speech and posture and a thousand other mimetic traits will bring the father unmistakably to mind.
These usages of image, applied to the microscope and photograph and offspring, carry a meaning similar to the "image" of Professor Pilcher that I unwittingly passed along to scores of Indian students. All are true images, a likeness of one subject expressed visibly through another. And all shed light on the grand and mysterious phrase from the Bible: the image of God. That phrase appears in the very first chapter of Genesis, and its author seems to stutter with excitement, twice affirming a concept just mentioned in the preceding verse: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him" (1:27). The image of God - the first man on earth received it, and in some refracted way each one of us possesses this quality wondrous strange.
How can visible human beings express the image of God? We certainly cannot look like God, sharing characteristic features of eyebrow or earlobe, for God is invisible spirit. Philosophers and theologians have long speculated on all that could be contained within the mystery of that single phrase. Predictably, they tend to project onto their definitions the principal concerns of their own era. The Enlightenment age assures us the image of God is the ability to reason, Pietists identify it as the spiritual faculty, Victorians claim it as the capacity to make moral judgments, and Renaissance thinkers locate the image of God in artistic creativity. As for our own psychology-dominated age? What else could that image be, we are now advised, than our capacity for relationships with other people and with God.
Because even professional theologians have failed to reach a consensus over the centuries, I will not attempt a comprehensive definition saying the image of God is this and not that. But since it stands for all that is unique about humanity among God's creations, the phrase deserves a few moments' reflection.
In the Genesis narrative, the concept "image of God" appears at the consummation of all creation. At each stage of progress, Genesis notes punctiliously, God looks back on creation and pronounces it good. But creation still lacks a creature to contain God's own image. Only after all that preparation does God announce the culmination of life on earth: "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground" (1:26).
Among all God's creatures, only humanity receives the image of God, and that quality separates us from all else. We possess what no other animal does; we are linked in our essence to God. (Later, as God discusses with Noah the extent of human dominion over the animals, this quality of the image of God looms up again, as a decisive and awesome demarcation between man and other creatures. Killing an animal means one thing; killing a fellow human is an entirely different matter, "for in the image of God has God made man" [9:6].)
* * *
One of the supreme artists of history rendered the Creation sequence on the vaulted stone ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Michelangelo chose as the centerpiece of his great work the precise moment when God awakened man into his image.
I have visited the Sistine Chapel, in its contemporary ambiance far different from what Michelangelo probably had in mind as a setting for his art. Tourists are admitted in groups running to several hundred, many of them clasping white plastic headphones to their ears like painful growths. They are listening to a recording that guides them through the chapel. Instead of looking up when they walk into that splendid room, they look down, following the trail of red tape that marks off an area where the recording is being transmitted.
Nothing can quite prepare the visitors for what they see when, on cue, they raise their heads. Magnificent works of art cover every inch of the large room: the division of light and darkness, the creation of the sun and planets, the days of Noah, the last judgment. And in the focal center, the calm eye in the swirl of frescoes, Michelangelo has painted the creation of man.
Adam's muscular body reclines on the ground in the classical pose of the ancients' river gods. Slumberous, he is lifting up his hand, stretching it out toward heaven from where God reaches down. The hands of God and Adam do not actually touch. A gap separates their fingers, like a synapse across which the energy of God is flowing.
In some respects, Michelangelo captured man's creation as no artist ever has. The very word Adam in Hebrew refers to ground or dust, and Adam is set on the physical earth. Yet Michelangelo also expressed Adam's dual nature by portraying the instant when God reached across the void to convey spiritual life. The second account of man's creation, in Genesis 2, adds more detail: "And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being" (v. 7).
When I heard that verse as a child, I imagined Adam lying on the ground, perfectly formed but not yet alive, with God leaning over him and performing a sort of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Now I picture that scene differently. I assume that Adam was already biologically alive - the other animals needed no special puff of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide to start them breathing, so why should man? The breath of God now symbolizes for me a spiritual reality. I see Adam as alive, but possessing only an animal vitality. Then God breathes into him a new spirit, and in-fills him with God's own image. Adam becomes a living soul, not just a living body. God's image is not an arrangement of skin cells or a physical shape, but rather an in-breathed spirit.
This single act of special creation, God breathing into man "the breath of life," distinguished humanity from all other creatures. We share with the animals a biological shell composed, in our case, of bone, organs, muscle, fat, and skin. In truth, we fall short in direct comparison to the strictly biological features of some animals. Who would compete in beauty with a splashy macaw or even a lowly luna moth? A horse easily outruns us, a hawk sees far better, a dog detects odors and sounds imperceptible to us. The total sum of our sheer physical qualities is no more godlike than a cat's.
And yet, we are made in the image of God. For us, the shell of skin and muscle and bones serves as a vessel, a repository for God's image. We can comprehend and even convey something of the Creator. Our cellular constructions of proteins arranged by DNA can become temples of the Holy Spirit. We are not "mere mortals." We are, all of us, immortals.
* * *
I began with the image of Professor Robin Pilcher, my old surgical chief from London. As a young student I absorbed something from his image that I carried nine thousand miles to India and in turn transferred to scores of Indians. Today, those former students work in hospitals all over the world. An exact copy of Pilcher's expression may appear at critical moments in Borneo, in the Philippines, in Africa. Pilcher died years ago, but that one aspect of him - a small pattern of facial muscles appropriate for a particular medical situation - remains alive and visible on my face and the faces of my students.
What God has in mind for us is similar, but far greater. God is asking us to be the chief bearers of his likeness in the world. As spirit, God remains invisible on this planet, relying instead on us to give flesh to that spirit, to bear the image of God.
Excerpted from In His Image by Paul Brand Philip Yancey Copyright © 2008 by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Excerpted by permission.
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