Faith and Reason: Camcorders and a glimpse of heaven: What is holy is different: you cannot capture holiness on camera for the image destroys it, writes Peter Mullen. Our series on whether God is guilty will be concluded next week.

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The Independent Online
ALL this concern for images: John Major's image, Tony Blair's image, every public man-jack's image. Images - and in the era of the electronic media that means television pictures - have become more important than reality. It is 30 years since McLuhan gave us modernity's cardinal text, 'The medium is the message.' And still we do not believe it.

But it is true and the image- makers are kings in the post-modern world. The results of general elections are achieved by the way that make conjuring tricks and sleight of hand marvellous. Sometimes these machinations fail of course as when President Clinton is given a haircut on an airstrip. This was no doubt intended as an improvement to his image but it ended up almost wrecking his image completely.

Modern technology has even caused image to be prized above reality. Anthony Burgess told us this in his dystopic novel 1985, where a horrid little girl salutes her father with the words, 'You was on the telly.' This is taken to be some sort of ultimate accolade. And it is true in what we tentatively refer to as 'real life': the impression is that people would do almost anything to appear on television.

It is as if our existence had become cathode rather than visceral, as if there were a new ontology summarised by the phrase To Be Is To Be Seen When Reality Is A Screen - as if the age-old philosophical argument about appearance and reality has finally been settled - in favour of appearance. At such a time as this, old words seem curiously contemporary, for example the commandment which said, 'Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image.' The present age has forgotten the prohibition on the making of images.

But this judgement neglects to account for the reason behind the prohibition of images. It was because wise people knew that the image as a mere copy, out of context, contains within itself the destructive potential of diminishing the numinous power of the original.

And yet we crave the original: that which is not an image but which is. Sometimes the results of this craving are laughable, as in the case of the proud father who wishes to 'capture' the religious moment of his daughter's christening. So he takes along his camcorder for the purpose and he gets his picture of his daughter, regenerate - but with it pictures of half a dozen other fathers with their camcorders. And gadget speaketh unto gadget unto the third and fourth generation.

People are more casual, jocular, talkative and less reverent in church these days and yet you know that what they are trying to capture on their cassettes and videos is precisely that uniquely spiritual, special, holy and other sense of the sacramental moment. The same problem arises when we consider the cathedrals. In every one of them there are signs saying This Is A Holy Place, but the clamour of visitors looks like profanity. They come because they want to see the holy place and you know they come with expectations of vast silence in an awesome space. They come for a glimpse of heaven but what they get is bustling mundanity. And this too is captured on the camcorder.

When a visitor goes armed with his camera or camcorder to a shrine he or she is trying to capture for ever something of unique, religious value. But the medium distorts the message. A unique spiritual moment is, by definition, something which we cannot preserve for ever.

In practical terms, when we come back to the man with his camcorder at the christening, we must ask what exactly is going on, and what is the meaning of the attempt to photograph a sacrament? The whole event is a sort of spiritual oxymoron. And yet, like the Renaissance painter, the photographer or the young man in his wedding suit clutching his cassette recorders is seeking to portray holiness. If he did not think the occasion was worth its weight in glory, he would not want to try to capture its flavour and its essence for all time.

It cannot be done. This is because religious significance, holiness, is not a disembodied essence and still less is it a succession of temporal images. Instead it is always located in a particular time and a particular place. A particular shrine or object or piece of ground is holy.

If you want this experience you have to go to it, make a special effort if not a pilgrimage exactly. And then you have to learn to be content to leave and let the moment pass, to return from the religious to the secular. Camcorders, videos and photographs secularise what is holy. They do this by replicating it.

Religion in the traditional culture connotes what is everlasting, immovable and changeless but it also expresses the paradox of this changelessness as occurring in time - in, say, the moment of consecration of a sacrament or the particular day named in honour of a saint.

The sense in which we cannot preserve this quality of holiness is akin to the sense in which we cannot step into the same river twice. More pertinently, perhaps, the mistake of thinking that holiness can be captured and, as it were, owned is shown in the story of the disciples at Jesus's transfiguration. So impressed were they that they wanted to build shrines for themselves then and there on the mountain to make a perpetuity out of a spontaneity. We do the same with our video-cameras.

There has always been this problem with the making of images and it is summarised under that old word 'idolatry'. And it always featured the desire to own what cannot be owned. What cannot be owned - either in an idol of stone or on a polaroid photograph - is holiness. This is because what is holy is different. The Old Testament word for 'holy' is the word for 'different'.

Holiness can be experienced but it must also be left alone - even as something to be returned to at the next and appropriate time. A curious and destructive consequence follows the attempt to make images of what is holy: the images lose their power and we become bored with them. That is what happens to most photograph albums.

When holiness becomes familiar it loses its radical power to disturb, to provoke and to bring about change - it loses its essential quality of holiness and becomes only an image. This perception has consequences not only in the realm of sacramental religion but in politics as well: the politician preoccupied with his image would do better to attend to his

reality.

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