III. Wrong assumptions

Be sure to read Part I and Part II.

So is the medium the message?
And is image inferior to word?

Let’s start with “The medium is the message.”

It ought to be impossible for a Christian, I think, to look back at the history of the Scriptures and still hold to this. Today, we have multiple Bibles and an enormous print culture that supports and surrounds these printed Bibles. This is the medium we’re protecting: the printed book. This is the culture we’re protecting: the one in which reading has been normative, the ready accessibility of cheap books a given.

When we plead for its preservation, we’re pleading for a culture that was born in 1456, when Gutenberg’s first Bible came off the press.

For some reason, this is largely ignored in many of the arguments based on McLuhan’s assertion that the medium is the message. The medium in which we now experience the “Word of God” is not the medium in which it was originally given–by any reckoning. In fact, we’re at least three media stages away from anything that could be identified as a medium that God chose in the revelation of his word; and each change in medium has significantly shifted the way that we think.

Let’s start with that 1456 shift. There were at least three major cultural innovations brought about by the printing press (and for this I’m indebted to Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday in The Renaissance Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print).

Gutenberg’s printing press, write Sawday and Rhodes brought into existence “a new world–a paperworld…This paperworld was a world of the imagination and the intellect rather than a geography of curious beasts, peoples, and plants.” In this new paperworld, first:

The book “was now a commodity, rather than (as in the manuscript world which the printing press helped to supplant) an exclusive, crafted object.” Before the press, purchasing a book was an individual negotiation over form, binding, quality and kind with a book-maker. The book was a devotional object, or a symbol of wealth; something designed, planned for, saved for. The press made it possible to “produce almost flawless replicas of a given text over and over again.” The result: the book became an intellectual tool, the almost invisible carrier of an argument, an abstraction. “The book.”


Humanity was given a brand-new occupation: reading. An extremely specialized and uncommon skill now became a pastime. For the first time in history, reading for instruction, for information, for devotion, for pleasure, became a possibility. For the first time.


The availability of multiple affordable books destroyed the human connection between reader and bookmaker; books were no longer the result of personal transaction between two people. Books were produced for a new class of beings: “the readers.” This I find particularly interesting: This new class of beings, “the readers,” made possible a whole new social structure: a place of impersonal debate, of ideas entirely disconnected from their originators, of a reading public receiving those ideas with no sense of the personalities, the human matrix, from which those ideas came.

The best possible illustration of this change is, of course, Martin Luther’s Theses, which he first put into a private letter to his local archbishop, and which were then, in handwritten form, circulated for academic debate among the members of the faculty at the University of Wittenberg–his community, his colleagues. Let me quote now directly, although in slightly condensed form, from The Renaissance Computer: “Luther had…initiated a public debate, but one that would be conducted according to the customary rites of scholastic disputation, in which an oral mode of address predominated. But the very existence of the printing presses was to transform the debate in ways that Luther could never have anticipated….copies of the Theses …were soon being issued from Leipzig, Magdeburg, Nuremberg, and Basle….which prompted Luther, in March 1518, to write to a friend…‘I did not wish to have them…widely circulated. I only intended submitting them to a few learned men for examination, and if they disapproved of them, to suppress them….But now they are being spread abroad and translated everywhere, which I never could have credited, so that I regret having given birth to them…’”

This printworld was drastically different from what came before. It would be very easy to make an argument that the shift of 1456 was as extreme as the shift which is now facing us.

And yet the word of God, which predated the shift, survived. Despite the obsolescence of the medium into which it was originally given.

I won’t take the time to trace similar changes in detail all the way back to writing of the New Testament books, let alone the books of the Hebrew Bible. But here’s a partial timeline.

The medium changed drastically in 1456, when the Bible was printed on the printing press and the printed book replaced the codex.

The medium changed drastically between the first and fourth centuries, when the codex replaced the scroll, thus allowing the reader to open a text at any point, rather than being forced to begin at the beginning; thus allowing the reader to pick his own starting point and fragmenting the unity of the written word.

The medium changed drastically between the third and first millennia BC, when parchment and papyrus scrolls replaced tablets of clay and stone, allowing writers to rattle on at much greater length, abandoning the concision forced by the difficulty of carving each letter into a resistance surface.

And I haven’t even addressed the issue of translation.

The history of the written word tell us that we cannot uncritically accept McLuhan’s pronouncement that the medium is the message. The ways in which words have been written and then transmitted have changed again, and again, and again, significantly.

If the medium is the message, the message of the Word of God is inaccessible to us already. Long before the Internet, the medium had already drastically changed from its original form–so drastically that the message of the Word was lost.

What’s my conclusion?

We cannot, thinking as Christians, conclude that the medium is the message. We can certainly say that the medium affects the message. But if we believe in a divinely inspired message, we have to turn the pronouncement around on McLuhan. We have to insist that the message also changes the medium.

Think about the Incarnation. The Word became flesh, which you’d think would be much more destructive to the message than the Word going digital (talk about a powerful medium). And yes, the medium of the flesh did shape the message of the Word. Yet at the same time, the message transformed the medium; the divine Word brought to the flesh the possibility of resurrection. It made it possible for the body, not just that of Christ but all of us, to become, in time, immortal. It transformed the entire medium, forever.

So the first assumption, I think, must be challenged: The message is not the medium.

That’s all well and good, you’re thinking, but despite all those changes in medium, we were still dealing with writing. Maybe digital culture won’t distort the message too much as long as it’s still transmitting words.

But although there are words on web pages and in instant messages and even, lo, on Facebook, the words are secondary and are increasingly supplanted by images. And images cannot convey truth in the same way that words do. Images are inferior.

Shouldn’t we go on worrying about that?

The theological argument about the inferiority of images is most often grounded in the Old Testament, and usually in the giving of the Ten Commandments. Both Jacques Ellul (in The Humiliation of the Word) and Neil Postman (in Amusing Ourselves to Death and elsewhere) see the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below,” as expressing the inadequacy of the visual to represent truth. Ellul writes that that images can never give truth about God because they are too closely tied to fallen reality; that only words can express truth about a divinity who is invisible and free of the created order. Postman makes a more general conclusion: that the command shows “a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture,” and that God’s intent was that his people form a word-centered culture which would be better, ethically better, because it was word-focused.

Ellul’s argument is considerably more theologically informed than Postman’s, and insofar as he is talking about the ways in which we use images of God in particular, I’ve got no quarrel with him.

The problem comes when we take this as a general condemnation of all image-centered culture–and as an implication that an image-centered culture is, by its nature, incapable of understanding who God is.

This possibility, that images will draw us away from being able to understand God, fuels much contemporary Christian fear of images. Philip Ryken, in Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis, quotes Postman and concludes that God “does not want us to look, but to listen…What the image always wants to do in worship is to distract us from hearing the Word.” Gene Edward Veith tells us that paganism is always image-centered, but that Christianity always prioritizes words. Arthur Hunt warns that “the “image always humiliates the word, always tries to exalt itself above the other, must have the attention.”

This is a fear not only of images, but of what might happen to any culture that delights in them.

My colleague Ted Turnau calls this “imagaphobia” and points out that it gives all the power to the media, ascribing to it an almost demonic ability to change us every time we encounter it. Imagaphobia pays no attention to the ways in which the images are used, their historical and social contexts, the choices and intentions of the consumers, and many other factors.

And that’s the central problem with using the Ten Commandments to conclude that God likes words and dislikes images: you have to ignore a good bit of the historical and social context of the commands. The Israelites were not to make images of God because that’s what they’d always done before. Those images would encourage them to think of God as a bigger and more useful version of the gods they already knew. And God was something else entirely. They had to learn to think of him in an entirely new way.

But that doesn’t mean that images are somehow intrinsically more corrupt than words.

In fact there is an equally strong prohibition in the Ten Commandments against using words about God incorrectly, in the way that they’d always used words about the gods before: Do not use the most important words about God–his name–in vain, as you would the name of any other god. This too would have allowed the Israelites to go on thinking about God as a supersized version of the local deities.

God is different. Thus both words and images revealing truth about him must be treated with enormous care.

Now there is, of course, a vastly old and complicated argument still going on about visual depictions of God; I am not here entering into that argument. Nor am I saying that the word of God is not important, that the Scriptures would be the same if it were a book of pictures.

What I am rejecting is the claim, made on theological grounds, that a culture which is primarily visual in its other communications will be rendered incapable of understanding the Word of God.

To take the Second Commandment as a general assertion about the corruptness of the visual is to yank it out of its historical context completely and thus to empty it of its real meaning in the time and place in which it was given. And I am not the first person to point out that this interpretation of the Second Commandment makes nonsense of the the immense visuality of the Tabernacle–of the images of sacrifice, redemption, mercy, grace, punishment placed into that Tabernacle without accompanying explanation in words.

Both of these underlying assumptions–about images, and about the power of the medium–have been more or less uncritically accepted by too many Christian commentators writing on these issues.

Both have supported the Christian tendency to say that we must be a print-centered society in order for God’s word to be effective. That when reading fades, Christianity fades. That when the book loses its premier place in our culture, the truths of Christianity will become obscure and little known.

Both deserve serious rethinking. Both of them have been taken as obviously true.

Neither one is.

So are there reasons to worry about the rise of right-brain culture? Should we continue to fight for the primacy of words?

Stay tuned for the conclusion…

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6 Responses to III. Wrong assumptions

  1. Sebastian (a lady) says:

    Wow. I wonder if an argument could be made that a reason for the prohibition of graven images is because our connection to image is so visceral.

    It also strikes me that the argument that written word should have pride of place is easier made in a modern American church, which would tend to be starker in appearance than even village churches in Europe. One is hard pressed to stand in Notre Dame, or St. Peter’s, or the cathedral in Brussels or even a small Orthodox church and argue that image does not or cannot convey much truth about God.

  2. excellent…I can’t wait to see the conclusion. As an Orthodox Christian immersed in imagery, this provides an interesting argument for the ability of images to communicate truth. For many of the Fathers defending imagery, they felt that the Incarnation opened the door to imagery as a vehicle for truth. The incarnation in a sense sanctified imagery.

    I love books and words, but your point about Gutenberg is so true. In fact, this text culture probably is more recent than that. It wasn’t until printing became more automated which may have only been the last 200 years that text became more prevalent.

    (btw, add a tweet this or facebook button to your posts so that they can be shared, I am sharing this through twitter)

  3. Tim says:

    Am enjoying this series and can’t wait for your conclusion. Ellul troubled me with his “…Humiliation…” thesis but I couldn’t find a way around him. That might have been because he was, well, Ellul.

    I’m a watercolorist and a Christian. Having been raised a fundamentalist Protestant, I sometimes worry that I am Eve, deceived by the beauty of the garden. Low church artists have a real neurosis to work through.

    Thanks for this.

  4. Jason says:

    A very well written and researched misunderstanding of the modern digital medium.

    The essential shift is not in the movement from text to graphics or from length to brevity, but rather from isolation to accessibility.

    The essence of the digital medium is easy modification and reuse. On youtube, news programs and TV serials are cut up and remade into something new. On twitter, messages are recopied and modifed. If text is an orchestral movement – structured, formal, and presented in rigid fashon, then digital is a jazz band, constantly riffing on the riff which came before the current one, with full participation and creative license to each.

    Still, I thank you for the entry, which was an enjoyable read in spite of the above. Furthermore, I leave analysis of the extended meaning of this malleability, for the faith, to you.

  5. Kevin says:

    Thanks for your thought-provoking series! I’ve enjoyed reading it so far and look forward to your conclusions.

    I wonder if the protestant declaration “sola scriptura” plays any role in the fear that a move away from printed material to digital material will destroy (or at least severely hamper) the faith. I am not arguing for or against the mantra; rather, I’m wondering if the emphasis on the place that the Bible, as a printed book (on paper or digital), has within protestant Christianity contributes to the fear. Could it be that a shift from a Bible-centered mentality to a Christ-centered mentality would significantly reduce or remove this fear?

    There are issues to be raised with this for sure (how do we know Christ outside of the Bible, etc.), but I wonder if we see that the message itself is Christ (as your post hints with its discussion of the incarnation), then the medium we employ, while clearly able to distort the communication of the message, can not change the substance of the message, since the message is a God/Man, not language. Maybe seeing the Bible as God’s chosen medium to transport his message might help (keeping in mind the history of the documents themselves). Any thoughts on this?

  6. Brian says:

    I am looking forward to the conclusion here, Susan. Thank you for sharing this.

    I had just finished Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist when I discovered this series of posts. You address this issue in much the same way he addresses issues of economics and technology.

    Isn’t it possible that this new era of digital communication will allow for a fuller, richer communication of the Christian message than anything we’ve known before? We have not, after all, lost anything. The “printed” word is more easily accessible now than ever. We have only added media.

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