We evolve into the images we carry in our minds. We become what we see.
—Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978)
In studying the Bible as a young man, I found intimations of the idea that forms of media favor particular kinds of content and therefore are capable of taking command of a culture. I refer specifically to the Decalogue, the Second Commandment….
—Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)
The People of the Word, the People of the Image
The children of Israel were already a people of the word and of the Book when they first entered Egypt. They carried with them the written records of the patriarchs, inspired records that Moses would eventually compile into the book of Genesis. But they had no totem, icon, or image by which they represented Yahweh. They were bound to their God, not by metaphysics or magic, but by covenant. They lived by God’s words and trusted His promises.
The Egyptians, on the other hand, were wholly devoted to images. Literacy in Egypt was normally limited to the scribes and nobles. Even the Egyptian system of writing was rooted first in images, rather than a phonetic system. But every Egyptian could “read” the images that surrounded them. The colossal images of the gods and pharaohs were inescapable witnesses to Egypt’s faith in the continuity of being, in the ultimate unity of the human and the divine. In The Creators (Random House, 1992), Daniel Boorstin says this of the Egyptians and their art:
No other people was so obsessed by colossi, or so successful with the colossal image… And if they could not make it better, they could make it bigger. Since in their tomb and temple relief the larger figures showed the more powerful people, the largest statues would be the most potent. Like messages in large type, Egyptian colossi were head-line hieroglyphics…. Colossi were hieroglyphs of power.
The children of Israel lived in the shadows of those images for four generations. Many succumbed to the fascination and awe that they so easily aroused. In the end, many of God’s people embraced the idols of Egypt (Josh. 24:14). They traded the words of God for a big world of images.
The Second Commandment
The Exodus was Israel’s liberation, and key to that liberation was the covenant law that God gave from Mt. Sinai. Yahweh had freed His people from the service of false gods and now they needed to know how free men ought to live. The First Commandment ruled out other gods, other sovereigns. The Second Commandment told Israel not to make any images of God. These are the words God spoke:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6).
The First Commandment dealt with sovereignty, with the proper source of law and authority. The Second deals with the representation and revelation of that sovereignty. How does God reveal Himself? How does man approach God? Who or what mediates between God and men. The Second Commandment rules out images of God, whether two-dimensional or three-dimensional, black-and-white or color, painted or computer-generated. Rather, God speaks to His people through words.
The Invisible God
God is Spirit (John 4:24). He is invisible and intangible by nature. He transcends created reality (2 Chron. 6:18). He reveals Himself in everything that He has made, but He is not like any of His creatures (Rom. 1). He is not a bull or a lion or a dragon. He is not the sun or the moon. None of His creatures contains Him, fully expresses His nature, or serves as a point of contact with His Being. Any attempt to portray God in visible terms must necessarily misrepresent who He is. Any picture of God is necessarily a lie (Rom. 1:25).
Idolatry as Self-Worship
But the man who makes an image of God is not content with God’s revelation of Himself. He doesn’t like God as He is. Mankind always seems to want to redesign God. He wants to bring God down to his level. He wants a god he can understand, a god that stays in his comfort zone.
Idols, of course, contain only what their human creators put into them. The idol maker always sees himself reflected in his idol. He worships his own imagination, sentiments, and creativity in the idols he makes. And the idol is a thing, an object, a non-sentient piece of metal or stone. The idolater may imagine that he has a personal relationship with the thing he makes. He talks to it, but it doesn’t answer back. He may praise it or chant to it. Nothing. The idolater will never find anything in his idols but echoes of himself.
Yet the idol, for many, is a bridge to God, a way to reach out and touch the infinite. He revels in his own imaginations and confuses his emotional exhilaration with God. But, in fact, idol worship destroys any kind of personal relationship with the true God. The idol worshipper does not know God, love God, or talk with God. He merely fixates on an image and his own self-generated passions with regard to it. In other words, idols are to religious experience what pornography is to romance and marriage. It is no accident that idolatrous cultures favor fertility worship, ritual prostitution, and obscene images. Nature speaks in images, some violent, some sexual, some subtle. Nature never speaks in words.
A Culture of Images
Images also bypass rational thought. An image isn’t a proposition, a syllogism, or an argument. Images don’t invite logical analysis or provoke rational discourse. An image comes loaded as sensory impact and tends to provoke emotional responses. It fills us with awe or revulsion. It stirs up lust or envy. It summons patriotic pride or personal shame. It leaves us amused or merely bored. But images generally aren’t conducive to rational propositions.
A culture centered on images ( religious or otherwise) will find itself moved more by aesthetics than by words, more by passion than by reason. Historically, cultures at this stage don’t seriously struggle with theology or philosophy issues. (They quickly tire of books, especially those without pictures.) They “play” with the trivial and the fragmented, anything that will amuse or entertain for a moment.
Images do transform those who fixate on them however. The Psalmist describes the impotence and silence of idols and then says, “They that make them are like unto them; so is everyone that trusteth in them” (Ps. 115:4-8). An image-based society becomes increasingly self-indulgent, irrational, and culturally impotent.
Images and Tyranny
Liberty rests on self-government and self-restraint. Both require an intelligent understanding of God’s law. Free men must be able to read, understand, and apply God’s law to the practical issues of daily life. Where images swallow up words, where spectacle overshadows rational thought and discourse, self-government quickly fades away. Liberty evaporates. Men are ruled by the passions stimulated by the images that saturate their culture. A heavy, societal thirst for images always paves the way for epistemological bankruptcy and moral depravity (Rom. 1).
Aldous Huxley described this sort of society in Brave New World (1932). His brave new people have forsaken reading and rational discourse and have surrendered themselves to sensual stimulation: sexual play, unrestrained consumption, and recreational drug use. They became ignorant and dysfunctional. The “Social Predestinators” shape and mold them from conception according to their own purposes. There is no danger of revolution against the control grid because there is no concept of justice and liberty, only of sensual contentment.
Ray Bradbury imagined a similar world in Fahrenheit 451(1953). Rational discourse is taboo. Thinking is discouraged. Men and women talk of nothing but trivialities; they lose themselves daily in three-dimensional soap operas; they quiet themselves for sleep with drugs. Books are banned, and firemen exist only to burn the few that remain. Again, a totalitarian State carefully plays the culture like a fiddle.
We can also think of Nazi Germany. Image, charisma, spectacle, was everything. Hitler didn’t come to power—or retain it—through rational discourse or logically persuasive argument. He was a master of propaganda. His speeches were epiphanies. Like the biblical “Man of sin,” he showed himself as God (2 Thes. 2:3-4). And the German church, driven by a liberalism that despised God’s Word, had nothing to counter the Nazi image-makers. And, as Hitler predicted, the liberal church quickly embraced the whole spectacle.
But there is nothing new here. From ancient times, from the days of Babel and Egypt, totalitarian cultures have reared up “big spectacle” imagery. The logic is simple. Since the idol can’t speak, someone must speak for it. In every society that has given itself to idol worship and imagery, a divine king or priesthood has claimed the power to speak for the silent gods. Idols have always been the tools of dictators, both in Church and State.
Conclusion: One Mediator
Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ is the unique link between heaven and earth (1 Tim. 2:5). He is the eternal Son of God, the divine Logos (John 1:1). But for our sakes, He became man. As such, He is the visible “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). He is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). And so Jesus could say to Philip, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Jesus is the biblical alternative to lifeless images and speaks powerfully to us in His word. His gospel offers covenant life. His law promises liberty and peace. But for America to receive Him again, we must reject not only our personal and cultural idols but receive His law-word to govern our hearts, our families and our culture. This “word driven” world was the world of Colonial America and it can be ours once again if we act in faith.
For Further Reading:
- T. Robert Ingram, The World Under God’s Law, Criminal Aspects of the Welfare State (Houston: St. Thomas Press, 1962).
- Arthur W. Hunt III, The Vanishing Word, The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003).
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).