If Solomon were living today Ecclesiastes 12:12 would no doubt read “…of making many movies there is no end.” To make the observation that images have replaced words in our culture is to state the obvious. The essence of contemporary culture manifests itself in the images Hollywood produces. So it is essential that followers of Christ also be connoisseurs of those images, distasteful and as unpalatable as they many times are. We are foreigners in a strange land, fluent only in the language of our homeland, unable to communicate with this strange land, if we stick our head in the evangelical sand and pretend that Hollywood and its images don’t matter. Hollywood matters immensely because not only is it speaking the language of the culture; Hollywood is creating the culture.
Hollywood understands something many Christians don’t: images communicate messages vividly. No words needed to be spoken on September 11, 2001 as images of horror filled our television screens. But many Christians understand something Hollywood doesn’t: we most certainly needed words in the aftermath of 9/11. Words of comfort, words of prayer, words of explanation, an endless stream of words as we attempted to make sense of what we saw that day. What image would you suggest might counter the horrific images of 9/11? We didn’t go to the movies on September 12; we went to church.
There is a danger in our noble attempts to redeem the culture of our becoming so immersed in our image culture we forget God has called us primarily to be a people of words. The sin that plunged the human race into ruin was an exchange of words – God’s words – for an image: Genesis 3:3 – “But God did SAY, “You must not eat from the fruit of the tree;” Genesis 3:6 – “When the woman SAW that the fruit of the tree was good for food…” Paul expounds more deeply on this exchange of words for images in Romans 1.
Images can move us emotionally, spiritually, physically. But so can words. In many cases words are more powerful than images. What image can replace, in terms of effectiveness, the 1,599 words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech?
When God called Moses up to the mount, Moses returned, not with an image – that’s what was created in his absence by Aaron and the people in their rebellion – but with words.
When God commissioned Joshua to take up Moses’ mantle, it was words – the Book of the Law – that he charged him to meditate on day and night.
When the prophets spoke to the people, it was “Thus SAYS the Sovereign Lord…”
And when God wanted to put an exclamation point on history, “In sundry times and in divers manners God SPOKE unto the fathers by the prophets and in these last days has SPOKEN unto us by His SON…” “The WORD was made flesh…”
In a culture whose primary mode of communication is images, followers of Christ must be vigilant about words. We must be mindful that it is through the medium of words and a Book that God chose to communicate to us. “The WORDS that I speak unto you,” says our Savior, “they are spirit and they are life.”
Images are important to our postmodern culture, as important as Hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. Images are the language spoken fluently by the culture. And followers of Christ must understand those images. But I am arguing that it is only words that can sort out images, prioritize them, and make sense of them. Ravi Zacharias is fond of saying, “In the beginning was the Word, not the video.” The calling of the Church in the midst of our image saturated culture is to resist the temptation to ourselves be mesmerized; but rather to sort out the culture’s images and interpret them through the prism of God’s word. In our efforts to speak the language of the culture we must be very aware of the danger of merely mimicking back to the culture what they have already seen, rather than doing the dangerous thing of speaking to them words that more often than not will contradict their images.
In the Foreword to his Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman captures the spirit of our times when he summarizes Orwell and Huxley:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
We are living the fulfillment of Huxley’s prophecy. Can the Church of Jesus Christ muster the will to counter the culture, to be a peculiar people devoted to words in the midst of a culture of idol images? Like Paul at the Areopagus can we stand in the midst of our culture’s images and use our words to point them to The Unknown God?