One of the most fascinating debates from political history is the Kennedy-Nixon debate from the 1960’s. Those hearing Nixon on the radio thought he won, while those watching on TV thought Kennedy won. The reason for this is that although Nixon could speak well, he was a sweaty mess, thus proving that there really is “a face made for radio.” This historical example illustrates that people respond to images differently than words.

This debate also brings to mind Marshall Mcluhan’s claim that the “medium is the message.” Mcluhan argued that different mediums “do not offer two different ways of experiencing the same event, but are actually two different events.” [1]C.R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Criticial Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus Publications, 2004), Kindle Location, 797. To demonstrate this, look at the words below and then the picture beside it—ask yourself whether the words or the image impact you more:

The-Boy-Is-SadIn his book Flickering Pixels, Shane Hipps argues that “The printed sentence presents us with abstract concepts, but the picture immediately pulls on our hearts. When we see words, they cause us to think; but when we see a picture, we react first and then think about our reaction afterward.” [2]John Dyer, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2011), Kindle Location, 2209-2215.

Is the Theological Medium the Message???

Long before Mcluhan, God knew that different mediums would lead to different results, and so He prohibited people from making images. Alternatively, God reveals himself primarily through speaking.

From Genesis forward, God “speaks, within himself, and the act of creation arises out of precisely this kind of interpersonal conversation between the members of the Trinity. Then, in the Garden of Eden, God’s relationship with Adam is expressed via the medium of language. It is how God defines the nature and limits of the relationship, and, after the Fall, it is how God confronts Adam and Eve with their sin. The same pattern is repeated throughout the whole Bible in both testaments…Indeed, God’s use of language is the basic element which allows the encounter between God and humanity to be considered as a personal relationship.” [3]C.R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin, Kindle Location, 627-634.

Yet in our day, images are becoming more dominant than ever before. If it is true that the theological “medium is the message,” in history a word based culture usually lends itself to worship of one God, while an image based culture trends toward polytheism. Indeed, “pagan idolatry is Biblicism’s chief competitor because one thrives in the absence of the written word and the other cannot exist without it.” [4]Arthur W. Hunt, Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-Made Environments (2013), Kindle Location, 875. From this conclusion, some argue that we can “make a case for seeing this as, theologically, an undoing or a reversal of the Reformation.” [5]Trueman, Kindle Location, 793-795.

The Image Can’t Conquer Completely:

Here’s my thesis: although the image is dominant, it can’t conquer. People won’t suddenly become illiterate–the reformation isn’t coming undone. Instead, I believe that an image driven culture produces a new kind of literary person, one who still values words, but who relates to them in a brand new way. Nicholas Carr explains this well in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation…Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.[6]Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 7.

What Carr’s book clarifies is that the internet transforms words into images. As people spend the bulk of their reading time with screens, words take on image-like qualities, eventually becoming like video: now words move and flash, appear in a variety of fonts, and can even change between visits to the same web site. On a screen, words are transient and abstract, taking on all the qualities of the visual medium. Many fear that the transient images on screens are leeching the permanence, and thus the potency, of the printed word. Others predicted this would happen, warning of a coming “crisis between eye and ear.” [7]F.B. Craddock, As One without Authority: Fourth Edition Revised and with New Sermons (Chalice Press, 2001), 9. This may be so, but I think the Internet actually grafts word and image back together.

Combining Word and Image:

In the past, words alone were enough to gain and hold attention. Now, the best way to hold attention is by combining word and image. This accounts for the rising popularity of infographics, and explains why Youtube is the second most popular search engine. Is this the image’s final victory in the “war against words?” [8]Trueman, Kindle Location, 591-592. It’s probably more accurate to say that we now live in a “no-man’s land” between two mediums. We don’t live in an image based culture, nor do we live in a word based culture; instead, the internet generates a hybrid culture, producing people comfortable engaging both mediums at once.

This post is part 5 of a multi-part series on the history and differences between a word-based culture and an image-based culture, and how this affects discipleship and preaching. See top of page for links to other posts in the series.

Recommended Books:

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Is the Theological Medium the Message?


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