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Editorial: The Seductive Image

Gregory Edward Reynolds

My granddaughter is fascinating to watch as she develops her knowledge of the images and sounds surrounding her. Her world is not, however, as one wit put it "a blooming, buzzing confusion," but rather a world of meaning awaiting her growing ability to interpret and understand it.

Why Do Images Tend to Seduce Us?

Why is the image so seductive? Let me suggest that it is because of its high value in the created order. Like sex, its social counterpart, images are so integral to our experience as image bearers of God that their corruption becomes so powerful; and because God gave us eyes, pervasive. So I think we need to begin thinking about the seductive power of images in terms of creation.

In Genesis 1:29 the Creator bids Adam and Eve "See..." i.e., "Look at all that I have given you. Now cultivate it for my glory." We are visual creatures because we image a "seeing" God. "God saw everything that he had made, and, indeed, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Our eyes are finite replicas of God's "eyes." It is sin that corrupts our visual faculties. "[W]hen the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate" (Gen. 3:6). Our eyes are our windows on the world. We are interpreting what we see as we see. Our eyes are connected to our thought-lives and our covenant loyalties. The inner life is the lens through which we look. In the Garden we saw the revelation of God's glory in every glance.

Thus, the image only becomes seductive when viewed by the sinner as a would-be autonomous person. Then, of course, since the fall images are created by people with the intention of seducing sinners. That is the force of the Second Commandment, which forbids "carved" images, i.e., images created by sinners as means of worship and as expressions of ultimate commitments that seek to replace the true and living God. These images become alternatives to God—God replacements. The modern world has simply expanded the menu of choices.

Daniel Boorstin—former librarian of Congress and American historian of the broad stroke and the big picture—first drew our attention to the power of the image, especially under the magic sway of electricity in his ground-breaking study The Image: or What Happened to the American Dream? published in 1962. He explored the image, not as a simple, static symbol, but rather as a complex of propaganda disseminated by the mass media through electronic as well as printed media. He was the first to refer to the "pseudo-event"—a media created event. He went on to describe the phenomenon of celebrity, a human pseudo-event, people who are famous for being famous. In our increasingly mediated lives, he maintained that "[t]he shadow outsells the substance."[1] Boorstin was describing the emergence of virtual reality. Now the magical world of computing and the Internet has empowered a whole new generation of fallen people with the ability to create its own "reality"—I should say realities. The possibilities for idolatry are almost endless.

At this point it is important to distinguish among various ways we communicate: images, words spoken, written, and printed. Remember, reader, that when you look at words on a page you are looking at images. Written words are an incarnation of speech, just as spoken words are an incarnation of thought. The invention of the phonetic alphabet simply drew out the implications of language, i.e., that each distinct set of sounds has meaning. Phonetics codifies this meaning in an efficient storage and transmission system. This is part of cultural development for which man was created in God's image. Printing made this accessible to a wide audience as a mass medium. But, lest we idolize the printed word, we should remember also that the early church was built in the era of oral and written speech. Individuals did not ordinarily have Bibles. Churches had handwritten manuscripts, which were rare, and very expensive. Thus, the oral word, especially the preached and taught word, was more precious to the ancient church than it is in print cultures. Images were limited to two- and three- dimensional individually produced works of art. The printing press enabled both word and image to be mass produced. Each of these developments changed the ways that people perceive the world and relate to each other. Electronic communication and high speed travel have fueled yet another massive alteration in our culture.

Standing back from the ethical issues, which inform analyses such as Bill Shishko's, we must become more aware of the ways in which electronic communication technologies have changed not only their messages or even the way we interpret the world, but the very social fabric of our society. Applied to the problem of pornography, this means that the age-old problem of sexual lust has been given new avenues of expression and gratification only possible in a rearranged electronic world. The anonymity provided by the Internet has largely removed the public shame attached to pornography. But so-called Internet "addiction" is not just a problem with pornography, but is more generally indicative of the alienating tendency of the computer itself. So-called "online communities" often mask the fact that many space-time communities, such as the family and the church, are suffering from the alienation and isolation caused by the Internet. So the seductive power of the image is directly related to the means by which images are disseminated. It is this, rather than images per se, that needs to be critically understood for us to be able to navigate the electronic sea change.

Seduce means to lead apart or lead astray. It was not only images in Eden that were used by the Serpent to beguile Eve. It was the power of the spoken word to undermine God's authority. Remember that God has ordained humanly crafted visual images as means of worshipping him. The tabernacle and temple were full of divinely mandated images. So the New Covenant sacraments are what Augustine called the "visible word." So, as God has given us all of our senses, we are called to consecrate them all to his worship and service.

But when images tend to dominate over words, their seductive power is enhanced. Satan reversed this order by intruding a rebellious interpretation of the visible fruit. It became a seductive power under this intentional influence. Without God's interpretive word guiding our understanding of images, they tend toward worshipping the creation more than the Creator. Images tend to seduce us because by themselves they reinforce our autonomous interpretations of God's world. They tempt us to create virtual realities independent of God, and thus destructive to our humanity. Without the proper framework for understanding, images have an immediacy that defy contemplation and thoughtful assessment of their meaning. This tendency is only amplified by electronic communication.

Why Should Words Have Priority?

In the history of creation and redemption, the word, first spoken and then written, has priority. God spoke all things into existence. He spoke the creation covenant to Adam and Eve. He spoke the first gospel to Adam and Eve after the fall. Moses spoke and then wrote the Pentateuch. God himself wrote the Ten Commandments (lit. "ten words") with his own finger (Exod. 31:18). So the Reformers correctly understood the word to be the primary means of grace. But remember the preached word took priority even over the written word, and thus the printed word.

Speech as a medium of communication is central to our bearing God's image. For this reason, the preaching of the word is central to the redemption of God's image bearers. Church officers should be busy cultivating this priority in the congregation of God's people. Preaching is the most excellent medium for communicating God's word because it is ordained by God; it is an authoritative monologue; it is the voice and presence of the Good Shepherd; and it is the powerful re-creative voice of God at work in the new creation.[2]

But this certainly does not mean that writing and print are unimportant. At its best, the written and printed word enhances our experience of the oral word. In the church the act of reading Scripture privately strengthens the church's ability to listen properly to preaching and everything else that is heard in worship.

While it is true, as I have said above, that reading written or printed words is a visual experience, it is, in some very important ways, quite different from viewing an image. The abstract symbols of speech we know as letters and words have several unique benefits attached to them. The printed word is rational and logical. It tends toward organization and clarity. It also mirrors and fosters historical understanding moving from a beginning to an end, even as history is conceived in the Bible, often understood as the Augustinian or linear view of history. Print as writing has an aura of permanence, and thus of authority, reinforcing a biblical view of truth, but also giving the illusion of being true even when it is false. Furthermore, as Plato feared, it tends to undermine memory, which oral culture reinforces by necessity.

Finally, print is both private and public or communal all at once. It tends to undermine some communities and traditions, while building others. Print was used in the Reformation to undermine the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. But it deepens individual understanding, because one is able to reflect on a text at one's own pace, referring to it at will. When texts are shared by a community like the church, passing its wisdom on to another generation in exact form, it binds such a community together.

Giving God's word its proper place in our lives, and maintaining the proper balance among our senses consecrated to God's service, we will inoculate ourselves and the people we serve against the onslaught of the seductive images and words surrounding, and at times threatening to engulf, us. The intentions we bring to all we see, hear, read, write, and say, function at the heart of our spiritual formation. As Christian men and officers in our Lord's church, we must devote ourselves to guarding those intentions.

Endnotes

[1] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: or What Happened to the American Dream? New York: The Atheneum, 1962.

[2] See the ninth chapter ("God's Chosen Medium") of my book The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 313-353.

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