Long ago the apostle Paul wrote, “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21, NRSV used throughout). Preaching, he implies, is essential to God’s purposes. At the same time, Paul tacitly acknowledges that preaching hardly looks like a sensible means to God’s ends. Just words? And inevitably imperfect words at that. Foolishness! Foolishness even then.
But had Paul lived today, in a culture as visual—and as increasingly inattentive to extended verbal discourse—as ours, might he have spoken differently? Might he have said that God has decided to use the foolishness of our feature films, our advertising, and our visual art to save those who believe?
After all, we have learned to be sensitive to cultural context of both the historical possibilities constraining the writers of the biblical texts, who had never seen a movie screen or a television or a tablet computer, and the demands of our own situation. Paul said in the same letter, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Evangelicals in particular have been quick to adopt new methods, eager to use all suitable means in the hopes of saving some. We can’t deny the power of the visual to move us, to connect with the heart as well as the head. Preachers have long been taught to speak so that people can picture what they are talking about. Images, especially moving images, compel us in ways words alone generally do not. Surely we should take advantage of these gifts.
Besides, God did make a physical, visible world. He did not choose to create solely spiritual creatures entertaining abstract ideas. He became incarnate in his world, acting in it on our behalf. In the Wisdom Literature as well as in Jesus’ parables, we are encouraged to look at the natural world to gain understanding—from the diligence of the ant, to the power of yeast, to the worry-free beauty of lilies. In the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), we speak of the Word made visible. And we consider those rare Christians who have no sacramental observance whatsoever to be practicing a truncated version of the faith.
So did the Reformers take a wrong turn when they moved decisively away from the significant emphasis on the visual in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches? The Reformers moved the pulpit to the center of the sanctuary, where the altar had been. Some even engaged in what many of us now see as excess: smashing stained glass windows and removing artwork that had been understood at least in part as picture books for the illiterate.
It’s not that the Reformers ignored the visual. Rather, they actively worried that it would supplant the Word (and also about breaking the second commandment, which forbids idolatry). Thus, “Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone” was the rallying cry of the Reformation, and we can readily cite texts like Romans 10:17: “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”
The Reformers believed the Holy Spirit made special use of Scripture and hearing the Word preached in bringing people to Christ in a way that is absolutely essential to faith. Why so? Historical circumstances, including corruption in the Western church that compromised its claims to authority, naturally played an important role. Protestants came to understand Scripture rather than tradition as the decisive arbiter of Christian truth. But there was and is more to it than historical circumstances. Two key issues are worth highlighting: the limitations of images with respect to conveying meaning, and the matter of personal address.
Images Aren’t Enough
No one doubts that visual works evoke emotion, but if you ask artists what their work means, they justifiably respond, “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t have painted [or sculpted or filmed] it.” And discerning people commonly disdain “preachy” art—art that betrays its integrity in order to convey a message overtly. But what Christian symbols and actions mean is nearly everything. Is a cross merely an arbitrary arrangement of pieces of wood or nothing but an ancient method of execution by torture or a sign of our salvation? The pieces of wood do not tell us, and we do not know without being told. Is the Lord’s Supper an odd ritual, an inadequate snack, or, at the very least, a fellowship that we share precisely as we remember Jesus’ death on our behalf? Even stained glass windows had to be explained in sermons.
Professors today who teach good classes or write good books on “theology through film” usually have a sophisticated knowledge of classical theology. And if they did not teach these classes or write these books, people might never discover the ways Christian themes appear in movies. If the classical knowledge is no longer transmitted through words, we’ll lose the ability to see the visual arts with deeply Christian eyes.
Something similar is true of acts of Christian charity. When the culturally oppressive character of some missionary work becomes all too clear, some think the best way forward is simply to help people with their pressing needs, tacitly—but only tacitly—in the name of Christ. It hasn’t worked, at least not as Christian witness. First Peter 3:15 instructs us always to be ready to make a defense, or give an answer, to anyone who inquires about the hope that is in us. Apart from such an answer, apart from proclamation of the gospel, good works and other evidences, however much appreciated, do not lead to knowledge of Christ. Jesus himself provided a definitive word on these matters when he refused to provide the family of the rich man in Hades with a sign: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Even the greatest of miracles—visible manifestations—will not convert a heart that is closed to God’s Word.
Words also help us to make necessary discriminations—something strongly resisted in some circles today, since distinctions and judgments about truth seem anything but welcoming and tolerant. However, such discriminations are indispensable to preserving Christian truth and fostering moral discernment (1 Cor. 11:19; Heb. 3:12–13).
For example, when the young church faced one of its first critical doctrinal decisions, as to whether Jesus was essentially one with God or only like him (the Arian controversy), scoffers derided the debate as a controversy over an iota—the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet—since the terms in question (homoousios, “of the same substance,” and homoiousios, “of like substance”) differ only by that one letter. The church believed, however—as orthodox Christians in all major branches of the church continue to believe—that there is a real sense in which our salvation is at stake here: If Jesus is not God, he cannot save us. Doctrinal mistakes at crucial points have consequences with ever-expanding import, just as heading off a path at the slightest angle eventually leads one very far from one’s intended destination. G. K. Chesterton put it strikingly:
The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. . . . It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. . . . A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs.
Chesterton provides a graphic visual imagery—given in words—to make a point about a precision that images alone can’t achieve.
For Blessing or Cursing
However, meaning and truth in the abstract, no matter how precise, will not suffice if they do not penetrate our hearts and minds. To this end, the power of words is just as compelling and probably more mysterious. Why is it that words, unlike sticks and stones, can break far more than bones? Anyone baffled by the biblical witness that blessing and cursing make a real difference in the world should consult children reared in homes where their parents’ words have profound positive or negative effects on them. Many adults will testify that a single statement made to them when they were young continues to ring in their ears in an inescapable way. A word spoken to us from the outside has incredible power, far more than the words we speak to ourselves. For example, who is more likely to abstain faithfully from eating pork, one who tries to stick to a diet for personal reasons or one whose religion forbids eating it?
Words spoken by others can manipulate and destroy, but they can also rebuild and console. That’s what happens when another pronounces forgiveness to us. And it’s bad advice to tell people to forgive themselves, for that is precisely what we are not constituted to do. We need to be told by another that we are forgiven. And simply knowing is not enough. We need to be told again and again even what we know.
A Christian kindergarten teacher I know told me the story of a little girl caught in the middle of a vicious divorce. Climbing into my friend’s lap, the girl said, “Tell me again that Jesus loves me. I keep forgetting.” The girl knew in her head that Jesus loved her, but she still needed to hear it from the outside. So affirms the old gospel hymn by Katherine Hankey: “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best / Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”
Preaching the gospel, then, is not simply about conveying information. When the gospel is truly preached and received, it enters the soul through hearing—with hope and promise, challenge and absolution, blessing and solace. It does not merely command, but gives what it commands, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It does not ask the hearer to believe 20-some impossible things before breakfast as an evidence of faith. Rather, it conveys the reality of the living Christ as the one thing truly necessary to a human life and an eternal future.
Pictures, static or moving, cannot do such things. To say that is not to deny that the arts enrich human life or to bar them from entering the sanctuary. Indeed, they can have positive value. However, visuals sometimes intrude, as when PowerPoint additions to sermons (whether text or image) split the hearers’ focus and seriously impede direct address. Entirely secular analysts make the point when they ask us to imagine Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech presented via PowerPoint, or when they provide a mock slideshow to accompany Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” A video clip that does not make the precise point of a biblical text and serve to bring the text home ends up overwhelming the sermon. It ends up implying that something besides the Word will really enable us to live faithfully before God and our neighbors.
God created the physical world by speaking (Gen. 1; Ps. 33:6, 9). We might even suggest that he constituted us as human by speaking, in giving us our distinctive role in creation (Gen. 1:28). We may think as we look at another, “Speak, that I may see you”; and we may be ashamed when, hearing a seriously physically impaired person speak, we recognize that we did not previously see her truly at all. Jesus himself is known as the Logos, the Word, through whom all things were made (John 1:1–3). And the term logos carries the sense of the structure of all reality. So maybe God’s choice of preaching, of using words, to give new life to those who believe is not so foolish after all.
Marguerite Shuster is Harold John Ockenga Professor Emerita of Preaching and Theology, and senior professor of preaching and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary.
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