White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Image Culture or Image Nature: Modern Media Ecology and Image Attraction

Published Friday, July 16, 2021 By Clay Joseph


In the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul begins an exposition of the nature of humanity’s idolatry. Rather than addressing a particular group (cf. Gal. 1:6) or event (cf. 1 Cor 5:1), Paul describes the condition of “all…men” (Rom. 1:18). In describing this common fallen condition, Paul writes “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and bird and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:22-23, ESV; emphasis added). For Paul, the fundamental transaction of the corrupt human heart is the exchanging of glory for images.

Image and Truth

Christianity is undeniably a religion of truth claims. Yahweh is “the only true God” (John 17:3), whose only son Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John. 14:6), whose “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17) sanctifies his children “in the truth” (John 17:17), and whose “word is truth” (Jn 17:17). Christians, therefore, must be people committed to Truth. They need to know what is true and what is false so as not to exchange one for the other.

Images cannot themselves make truth claims. As Neil Postman observed in his Amusing Ourselves to Death,  “the photograph itself makes no arguable propositions, makes no extended and unambiguous commentary. It offers no assertions to refute, so it is not refutable” (73). Because images cannot make truth claims, the value of an image is not in truth but authenticity. The viewer of an image must either independently discern whether the image is to be believed or have an image interpreted and then discern if the interpretation is credible. Credibility and believability, rather than truth, become the dominant virtues of an image-based culture.

This new image-virtue tends to limit truth, experience, and indeed all of life only to what can be pictured. Walter Ong argues that orality communicates presence, which is actual and true, even if not seen. He writes in his The Presence of the Word, “We succumb to the temptation of technological man to consider the universe as a world-in-space and only a world-in-space, essentially something picturable. Picturability is not the measure of actuality. For the universe, or at least our part of it, is filled with presences, which form the real stuff of our awareness but which themselves cannot be pictured” (308). In other words, the focus of images is on credibility, not truth, and the scope of images is limited to tangibility, not truth.

This informs the sinful shift referenced by Paul in Romans 1:23. What is so attractive about images is that they seem to be true (i.e. they are believable), and, since they are tangible in a way that truth is not, images seem to be the only thing that is true. God’s glory, which “dwells in unapproachable light” and is invisible (1 Tim 6:16), cannot be pictured or imaged by man. Indeed, when Moses asked the Lord to show his glory (Exod. 33:18), the Lord’s response was full of accommodation and ultimately the prohibition that “[God’s] face shall not be seen” (Exod. 33:23). Is there a right and proper use of images and picturability? Yes. Are they to be used as the sole conveyors of truth, as the only measure of actuality? No.

Image and Preference

In addition to the image’s inability to convey truth independently, the image’s inherent instrumentality poses a problem as well. The image is a medium, an intermediary, a go-between. It is created, formed, and planned. In this way, the image is expressive of the options of its maker. The exchanging of God’s glory for an image is, then, the exchanging of (or at least attempt to exchange) submission to a sovereign God, who remains entirely out of our control, for a representation over which we, the makers, have control. The image is synthetic and so, as a medium, aims at creating options.

An image is synthetic in that it is created and unnecessary. It is contrived, formed, carved, or assembled. It is designed, planned, tailored, or updated. Daniel Boorstin made the point in his The Image, that the image is essentially an instrument or tool. Boorstin explains, “Images are means. If a corporation’s image of itself or a man’s image of himself is not useful, it is discarded. Another may fit better. The image is made to order, tailored to us” (198). Just as any instrument has a designed purpose and intended user, the image is also a synthesized product. This tailored nature of the image means that images reflect preferences and personality of their users. The danger, then, is that images may pose to their users that truth is a matter of preference and personality. The user decides what is important, what is credible, what is useful. The image sets its user as sovereign.  

Instrumentality is not inherently evil. However, its effects need to be understood properly. That it is a tool matters, but so does the kind of tool it is. In this case, an image is a communicative tool used to mediate something via visual representation. Images are a communicative tool and thus change the way people perceive and think which also changes how people speak and hear. As Marshall McLuhan observes, “the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance;” the image user must be aware of the change in their patterns of perception (33). In an image saturated culture, we might ask what are images teaching? Not just the specific content of the images, but also the image saturation itself. Indeed, what are people surrounded by images becoming?

Images, as a synthetic tool of meditation, are teaching their creators and consumers that what is best is what is chosen. The best belief is whatever one chooses to believe. The best thought is what one chooses to think. This is essentially Thomas De Zengotita’s conclusion: “The inherent aim of the ethos of mediation is to turn everything into an option, even when it can’t literally succeed.”[1] Because images are synthetic instruments, they can be altered, accepted, or abandoned. The very physiology of the human body lends itself to this conclusion. Unlike with the other senses, one can shut their eyes and stop seeing.

Since everything is an option, the choice is in the eyes of the beholder. Therefore, the creator of an image designs their image to be chosen. The primary ethic of an image is not that it must be good, full of virtue, or admirable. No, an image need only be preferable. Ultimately, the image makes the viewer the judge of what is acceptable. And so, in an image saturated culture, the problem is not merely that truth gets warped, lost, or misunderstood, it is also that people learn not to care about the truth. That an option exists is most important, that an option is taken is only slightly less important, and what is chosen matters least of all.

Let it be clear, sight and picturability are not only and always a problem. The Lord does show himself in accommodating ways, he did make humans in his image, and he does give sacraments (i.e. visible signs and seals) to his people. It was no mistake that God gave sight to humanity. The problem is misunderstanding and, more pointedly, misusing images. The great temptation is to exchange glory for image and truth for falsehoods. Rather than perhaps reinforcing truth with images, humans replace truth with images, because images come with the privilege of preference.

Word and Truth

French philosopher Michel Foucault astutely observed that people will always rank images and words, “An order always heirarchicizes them, running from the figure to discourse or from discourse to the figure” (33). Despite the attractiveness of images, the word must be prioritized over image because the word communicates truth and establishes presence. Speech can make truth claims. As Jacques Ellul explains, “The word belongs to the order of the question of truth. An individual can ask that question of truth and attempt to answer it only through language” (29, emphasis original). This should come as no surprise to Christians who believe that “in the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) and that the Word was the God who spoke the world into existence (cf. Gen. 1-2).

As Neil Postman so simply put it: “Speech…is the primal and indispensable medium” (9). It is basic and foundational to human experience. The word is first; new-born babies hear before they see. The word is also simple; that is, it is not a synthetic thing. Since it is not a synthetic thing, Ong writes that “the word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be ‘broken’ and reassembled” (Presence of the Word, 323). The word inherently communicates truth, in part, because it is basically true in form. It is unable to be manipulated like images. If Foucault’s claim that word and image are always in a hierarchical relationship is correct, then the word takes precedence over image because, as Ong states, “The picture must always be elucidated by the word more than the word by the picture” (Presence of the Word, 322). The word is, by nature, more fundamental than the image because speech can function without images, but images need speech. Speech can communicate truth on its own; therefore it is necessary.

Word as Presence

There is more to speech than its nature as a medium for truth, as fundamental and important as that is. The word is also a presence; not a thing, but a presence. It communicates being. Once it is spoken, it exists, but it only exists until it is no longer spoken. As Ellul recognizes: “speech is basically presence. It is something alive and is never an object. It cannot be thrown before me and remain there”(Humiliation of the Word, 15),[2] so Ong recognizes a deep, personal, untouchable quality of this word-as-being, “Coming from the deep interior, [the word] comes from a region to which we have no direct entry, the personal consciousness of another, the consciousness which utters the mysterious ‘I’ which means something utterly different from what it means in the mouth of anyone else” (Presence of the Word, 314-15). With words, humans express personal consciousness and so assert their unique presence.

The consciousness produced by the word is then shared with the hearer and thus builds community. The connection between the speaker and hearer of a word is sui generis. The unique, personally imprinted word produced is then internalized by the hearer. This is why so many people have found Hellen Keller’s wisdom so profound: “Blindness cuts us off from things; deafness cuts us off from people.”[3] Human speech is a unique process. A human word is a unique presence. The uniqueness of the word’s communication of presence gives it more weight than an image. In sum, speech takes precedence over image because people take precedence over things.

Images reflect reality, but speech confers being. Images offer preference, but speech offers purpose. Images can be removed or reclaimed, but speech can only be spoken, remembered, or forgotten, never reclaimed. Images are ambiguous and make no truth claims, but speech elucidates and predicates. Images build reputation, but speech builds relationships. A world of images gives a person a created reality that reflects the viewer’s choices, but the result could be void of truth, relationships, and purpose. Exchanging glory for images may be preferable, but also likely pointless and lonely.

Conclusion: An implication

One of the many areas for which this analysis holds implications for Christians is within the church. The faithful local church is the context in which Christians are able to hold images and the word in their proper order.  The church is centered on the word because that is how God has revealed himself, both in the word as medium and the Word as person. Whether preaching, praying, or praising, the local church ought to use words to worship the Word. Insofar as the church exists to worship in truth the God “whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16), words as the medium of truth ought to be the medium of Christian worship.

What about the visible signs of the church? These ought to be ordered according to the priority of word over image. Baptism and the Lord’s supper are “sensible signs” which Christ uses to represent, seal, and apply the benefits of the new covenant to believers.[4] But these sensible signs must be administered and elucidated by the word, whether proclamation, pronouncement, or profession. Thus, these images, these visible means, are properly used and understood according to the word.

The nature of images makes them attractive to us, but to pursue images at the cost of the word is a dangerous choice. Because of its dedication to the Word, the church is a unique antidote to the dangers presented by images and image culture as well as good soil for understanding life, promoting truth, and ultimately giving God the glory.

Clay Joseph and his wife currently live in Escondido, CA, where he is pursuing an MDiv at Westminster Seminary California.

[1] Thomas De Zengotita, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005), 128.

[2] Ellul, Humiliation of the Word, 15.

[3] J. Christie, “Helen Keller,” Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness. Vol 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill; 1987), 125. As found in Max Stanley Chartrand, “What Helen Keller Knew; What Popular Thought Overlooks.”

[4] Cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 92-93.

  • Clay Joseph

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