The Vanishing Word
A review of Arthur Hunt's, "The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World," by Dr. Douglas Groothuis.
Hunt, Arthur W. The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 2003 271 pp.
This sane, sobering, and penetrating book is an expansion of a series of articles originally published in The Christian Research Journal. Hunt is a student of rhetoric and the history of ideas who brings a critical eye to what most people take for granted today: the dominance of images in our postmodern world. In this, he is like Marshall McLuhan, who labored to bring the cultural background into the foreground in order that we might discern the background’s typically invisible but pervasive effects. (Consult McLuhan’s seminal work, Extensions of Man , on this). Filling our cultural background and accepted without question or reserve is a media-driven world of omnipresent images. But when visual images are venerated and take control of the media and minds of a culture-as they have in contemporary western culture-the word “vanishes” from consideration. Words, written and spoken, are still present, mind you; but they lose their commanding presence and power. In the phrase of Jacques Ellul, the word becomes “humiliated” by the image. (See Ellul’s brilliant, but neglected, work, The Humiliation of the Word , for his elaboration on this theme).
I challenge any reader who doubts the truth of “the humiliation of the word” to do three things. First, estimate the ratio of images to words in any recent issue of Time Magazine or Newsweek. I estimate that images take up over fifty percent of each issue. Thus the image sets the agenda and the content of the articles suffers. Second, peruse any issue of Christianity Today from 1975-1980 and estimate the image to word ratio. Then compare this estimated ratio to that of any issue since 2000. The image humiliates the word here as well, sad to say. Third, ask five people you know these two questions: (1) What is your favorite book? and (2) What is your favorite television program? I wager that in most cases answers to the second question will be forthcoming and delivered with some passion. Answers to the former question will be more labored and less enthusiastically offered. (It was amusing to see various magazines and newspapers near the end of 2003 feature pieces called “The year in pictures,” since we already experienced the year “in pictures.”)
Sadly, most evangelicals are oblivious to this shift from word to image or, worse yet, recognize it and celebrate it. Leonard Sweet’s Carpe Manana (reviewed by me elsewhere in Denver Journal), features a chapter called, “From Word to Image” which claims that since our culture traffics in images, all our communication and ministry must be shaped according to its dictates and preferences. This sensibility is what McLuhan referred to as “technological sleepwalking”-one trudges through culture zombie-like, utterly unconscious of the effects of technologies on society and the individual. Professor Hunt, to the contrary, chould never be accused of such nocturnal navigation. He is, rather, wide awake to the intrinsic nature of media technologies, their effects, their implications, and the dangers they pose to intellectual analysis, moral awareness, and Christian witness in the postmodern world.
Hunt’s central thesis is that a pagan worldview prefers and revels in a world of mere imagery divorced from the intellectual analysis made possible by written language (a point made by Camille Paglia). His second chapter, “Tables of Stone,” investigates the nature of God’s written revelation and its intellectual and spiritual implications. Hunt is well worth quoting at some length on this:
When God took the initiative to reach down to mankind, it was not a mistake that He purposefully chose the medium of writing to make Himself known. The Ten Commandments, and the entire Bible for that matter, did not come to us through oral tradition or through pictures. To the contrary, the message delivered to Moses was written with the finger of God. The very notion of divine revelation, the communication of truth that cannot otherwise be know, demands a method of documentation and preservation that goes beyond orality, pictorial representation, dance, or smoke signals. If one believes that revelation is “God-breathed,” (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16), that each word of Scripture originates from the mind of God, then writing is the obvious choice, for no other medium possesses the objectivity and permanency needed to tell the old, old story (p. 35).
Of course, God does make truth about himself known through the wordless creation, conscience (Romans 1-2), and through spoken discourse (say by preaching a biblical text with integrity), but Hunt’s point still stands. God special revelation in Scripture is written, and the form is not incidental to God’s purposes. God gave us a book, not a video. In the beginning was the Word, not the Image. Inasmuch as we devalue this unique form of communication, we devalue truth itself. Inasmuch as we allow the relentless reign of images to wrest and win control over the means of propagating the Christian message, it ceases to be the Christian message in its fullness. Inasmuch as Protestants forget their iconoclastic heritage, they become vulnerable to idolatry.
Hunt’s analysis is a needed tonic to the totalizing toxins of popular culture’s visual idolatry (as evidenced by our infatuation with movies, television, video games, and so on). Although his work is in a sense derivative (there is little new or groundbreaking research), he draws profitably from the work of Camille Paglia, the recently deceased Neal Postman, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and other astute social critics. The unique contribution of The Vanishing Word is that Hunt applies these insights from the perspective of a biblical worldview. While Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word combines theological critique and social/historical analysis (one of the few of his books to do this), the book’s density and obscurity keeps it out of the reach of many. Hunt’s work, while intellectually solid and challenging, is more approachable and applicable to Christian living. May this book find a large and/or influential audience.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy