Can We Survive the Visual Tsunami?

Could there be a deeper rationale for the first commandment?
Can We Survive the Visual Tsunami?
Image: ViewApart / iStock

“The Editor’s Desk” is a weekly, personal meditation by CT Editor Mark Galli on how he approaches the issues of the day.

Lent is, among other things, a season of self-examination, and one traditional tool for self-examination is the Ten Commandments. In measuring my life against them again, I see failure at every step. That is not new or interesting. What struck me with new force recently is this: we live in a culture that makes it next to impossible to obey three of these classic ten.

Today, I’ll reflect only on the first: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Ex. 20:4, NIV).

One could make a case that the prohibition against images has a logic of its own apart from idol worship.

We usually understand this as merely a prelude to what follows, the prohibition against worshiping idols. But what caught my attention recently is the sweeping nature of the command—it appears to prohibit all images—and the strong break between this sentence and the following one about idols. One could make a case—such a case has, in fact, been made by Jacques Ellul, among others—that the prohibition against images has a logic of its own apart from idol worship.

Images do all sorts of things to us, from inspiring faith to entertaining us to cultivating envy and so much more. But one quality concerns my own experience: images usually leave me passive in the experience they engender—images just come at me and don’t require much of me but to receive them. The word, however, requires a mental response; I have to interact with the word to make sense of it. I have to discern the meaning of words and the trail of an argument or story to grasp the event the word wants to create.

This is one reason both Jewish and Christian faith are word-centric. It’s why preaching, for example, is considered by Paul the means of spreading the gospel: “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14). It’s not a coincidence that Jesus is named the Word.

Yes, the biblical view of image is more complex than this—Jesus is said to be the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), after all. The consensus of church history clearly affirms the value of images. But a moment’s reflection suggests that how we process images is different than how we process words.

And then there is this: we live in an age when images are the alpha and omega of our existence. Hardly a minute goes by before we are confronted with another image: on Facebook and Instagram, on television, on billboards, in magazines, and so on. Yes, images have been around for some time: in the Middle Ages, for example, stained glass windows taught the faith to those who could not read it themselves. But as Ellul notes in The Humiliation of the Word, “Such images became a part of one’s universe, but did not in themselves form a separate, autonomous universe. … One could not then have spoken of a civilization of images, whereas this is certainly what we have now. The multiplication of images has changed the nature of the phenomenon.”

Other than our moral concern about pornographic images, we rarely reflect on this commandment not to make images in light of our new social reality.

He goes on to say, “This is one instance in which the Marxist idea is correct: sufficient modification in quantity may become a qualitative change.”

He wrote this in 1965, when images were much less ubiquitous than they are today.

Other than our moral concern about pornographic images, we rarely if ever reflect on this commandment not to make images in light of this new social reality, that is, that we live in an age of the ubiquity of images. It’s no wonder: how can fish get enough distance to contemplate the water they swim in?

One thing I have noticed is this: images help me feel quickly and with relative ease—and for this I am grateful. But a steady diet of images seduces me to stop thinking. Critical thinking isn’t everything, but when one is assaulted with images day after day, and when images (in the form of television, movies, and Instagram) pull me away from reading that makes demands on me (and thus can change me), I worry that I will end up breezing along in the jetsam of culture instead of living with freedom and intention.

These reflections are clumsy and hardly do justice to the writings that explore in great depth the relationship of word and image, much of which I find hard to fathom frankly. But such are things I ponder this Lent as I seek to faithfully serve Yahweh, who gave this strange command. It’s another reason I’m grateful the ubiquity of grace, which covers a multitude of sins, including those that sabotage me without me even being aware of it.

Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.

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Can We Survive the Visual Tsunami?