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).

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 ...

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