We live in a society saturated with images; from still photos and billboards to magazines and television to movies and Internet, Christians are bombarded with demands upon their time, energy and attention. Quiet (or even passionate) discourse and reflective thinking is not the excitement of the day: if there are no raging, emotional debates, then C-SPAN 2 is ignored for the easier-to-digest shallow one-minute sound-bytes on CBS. The visual medium lends itself readily to the exciting and exhilarating—as far as our eyes are concerned.
Adult Americans spend almost 4.5 hours a day watching television—this does not even count Internet or videos! Children watch even more television, not to mention video games. We are a society inundated with the visual. It can be very alluring. These mediums (TV, movie, art, etc.) are not evil per se, but they can be entrapments (and every age has its weaknesses) to a generation reared on the visual medium of stunning images and one-hour “documentaries.” It is not simply that society teaches us to follow temptation with our eyes; we ourselves know the allurement of images and the difficulty of reading words. It is hard to concentrate on a book. Images are more “real” to us than the abstract words on a page.
Indeed, these images are so real that people are more excited when they find themselves on TV than with the simple fact that they actually participated in the televised event. These images become an existential moment—a personal encounter that rises above (below?) rational discourse. It is so real and personal that words are lost. When watching a movie we tend to suspend reality to such an extent that we are moved to tears, rage or joy. That is the power of the image.
Even after being raised without a television from the age of ten, I could still feel the pull of the tube while in the military day room. Am I simply picking on this medium? Cannot the visual mediums be enjoyable? Yes, they can. Cannot these mediums be artistic? Yes, they can. Cannot these mediums be used for teaching? Yes…within limits. As a matter of fact, any of these legitimate goals can be corrupted when they supplant Christ and His Word. Even a book can be an idol.
The images of this world can be extremely alluring. I John 2:16 warns us against the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Thus, this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed in our day and age. We must recall our Biblical roots. From the temptation of the fruit in Eden that was attractive to the eyes to the temptation of Christ with a vision of the world’s kingdoms, we know from the Bible the dangers of the eye-gate. On the flip side, there is a positive presentation of what should be done to combat this weakness in our flesh: the Word of God stresses the written or spoken, not the visual. Consider:
- “In the beginning was the Word….”
- The Bible gives little to no physically pictorial information about its heroes and villains, let alone about Christ.
- The Second Commandment emphasizes the dangers of images.
- From God’s stern reproach in the Garden to the audible chiding by Christ on the Damascus Road, God’s revelation of salvation is predominately through words.
- God chose the foolishness of preaching to raise the dead, Ezek. 37:1ff.
- The Bible itself is written—it is not a picture book for children.
“Them Fight’n Words”
One of the battles fought by the Reformers against the Roman Catholic Church was over the use of idols and images. Rome contended, “Images are the laymen’s books.” They also argued that these images would help stimulate “holy feelings.” The Reformers countered, “It is the read and preached Word of God that should inform our minds, stir our souls and motivate our wills to do His holy will.” This is the Reformed root of modern Evangelicals. But it appears that many in today’s Christian world would agree more with Calvin’s opponents than with Calvin himself.
In one sense these are ‘fight’n words’—but we seriously need to wake up from our long couch-potato slumber and fight the temptation to think less and watch more. Our children are becoming more illiterate, recognizing the name of Ben Affleck but staring blank-eyed over why preaching is important, “but it’s so boring….” That is the catchword. We crave entertainment. We are passionate for images. We wish to be sung softly to sleep by the siren calls of American Idol but are rudely turned-off (note how our own language has changed) when the pastor preaches and the congregation sings. There is little passion for the Word. This is one more fight against our flesh. This is one more battle that must be given to the Lord.
Now, the idea of image used here is not to be confused with symbol. Symbols represent people or ideas, usually in the abstract; images represent people or things through physical, visual correspondence. The triangle and three circles may symbolize the Trinity, but it does not claim to visually equate what they physically look like (for who can draw a spirit—God is a Spirit). The difference between these two is readily seen in the difference between the alphabet-words and pictographs. The word ‘house’ does not physically look like a house whereas the pictographs (such as hieroglyphics) seek to draw a house. Historically, the rise of the alphabet has advanced civilization through means of more readily communicating abstract thought.
Raising this issue of Word and image does not intend to undermine the legitimate use of our senses (especially our eyes, obviously we have to use them to read the Word!), but seeks to reaffirm a proper role of the Word for the ordained Church of Christ as a tool of teaching and worshiping. Which is the biblical method to evangelize and teach? Which is the biblical way to worship and appreciate Christ’s work? Thus, this issue affects every individual Christian: what is the role of Word and image in my life?
These questions will be explored through a short presentation of the prohibitions of Scripture followed by a positive evaluation of the role of the word in general and the Bible in particular. Hopefully, this presentation will motive us toward a passion for the Word.
How then should we live? What should dominate our thinking and living: Word or Image? Instinctively, many Christians already know the answer. But sometimes we need to be reminded of the biblical roots of the supremacy of the Word.