top of page

You are what you read, or see... or are you?

The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World by Arthur W. Hunt. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books. 2003 271 pp.

Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

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 [1963], 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 [1985], 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, 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.

Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson

238pp, Allen Lane, £10

Reviewed by Steven Poole in The Guardian, Friday 1 July 2005 20.22 EDT

I read this book while chain-smoking, glugging whiskey and eating massive quantities of dairy products; now I feel I've been had. Not everything bad is good for you. Steven Johnson's fizzily readable little polemic actually consists of two separate arguments about popular culture.

First, he rails against the notion that our culture is dumbing down; he says that TV, films and video games are better than before. Second, he maintains that these things are actually making us more intelligent.

Johnson makes a persuasive case for the first claim. It is true that TV shows such as The West Wing are more complicated than Starsky and Hutch. It is also true that video games such as SimCity are more complicated than Pac-Man. The uninitiated may learn a lot from Johnson's entertaining and clever account, in the first section, of the sheer hard work and problem-solving required to navigate a modern video game. His fine analyses of obscure in-jokes in Seinfeld or the confusing jargon of ER are also illuminating, and he makes the good point that the era of DVD aftersales encourages more subtlety and complexity in television programming. So far, so good. But perhaps these scattered observations do not cohere well enough into a headline-grabbing thesis. So let's say in addition that this stuff is actually making us smarter. And here the problems begin.

What might "smarter" mean? Johnson never says, and systematically blurs crucial distinctions. Pop culture is "intellectually demanding", or it enhances "our cognitive faculties", or it poses "cognitive challenges", or it has "intellectual benefits". But cognition and intellect are not the same thing. A baseball player or cricketer has a highly specialised cognitive mastery in judging the flight of a ball through the air, but that does not make him necessarily an intellectual powerhouse. Conversely, an intellectual giant might be cognitively challenged in various fields, such as remembering where he put his keys.

The book affects an air of empirical, science-based analysis, but unfortunately Johnson wants it on the cheap. Early on, he grandiosely announces that he will do what most cultural critics fail to do: engage with the findings of neuroscience. What he actually then does is to mumble something about the brain's dopamine system and to guess that videogames might be good at engaging it. He saves his grand proof, meanwhile, for the second half of the book, which goes like this: IQ scores have risen steadily over the last few decades in the industrialised west, so this must be thanks to the cerebral challenges posed by pop culture. Really, must it? You could make an equally plausible case that since banana consumption has risen massively in the west over the same period, it must be the nutritional benefits of bananas, so rich in potassium and other brain-enhancing minerals, that are responsible for a rise in general intelligence. (That is, if rising IQ scores are actually evidence for a rise in intelligence, an idea that is highly controversial.)

What is undeniable is that watching complicated TV shows makes you better at watching more complicated TV shows; and playing video games makes you better at playing more video games. But Johnson wants more: he wants these skills to be, as psychologists would say, transferable. One recent study Johnson triumphantly cites shows that regular video-gamers were better at doing "a series of quick visual recognition tests, picking out the color of a letter or counting the number of objects on a screen". In other words, regular video-gamers were better at performing video game-style tests. This is not a very surprising result.

So much for the pseudo-science. The weirdest aspect of the book is that it defends popular culture while holding an attitude of contempt for it. "With mass culture," Johnson opines, "the individual works are less interesting than the broader trends"; and "the content of most entertainment has less of an impact than the kind of thinking the entertainment forces you to do". In other words, he is a snob: yes, this stuff is crap, but look, it's useful crap! Embarrassed by the princesses and dungeons of the videogame Zelda, for instance, he pleads that it is a "false premise" that "the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent".

Of course, we know that "content" consists of more than "themes and characters", but Johnson is hobbled by an exclusively literary idea of what content might be. He admits that "Most of the time, when you're hooked on a game, what draws you in is an elemental form of desire: the desire to see the next thing", but he never for a moment considers the visual aesthetics of games - how they imagine and construct the next thing for you to see - and cannot allow this to be part of the "content" which he suggests we ignore. He does not seem to notice, moreover, that this wilful blindness is inconsistent with the fact that if video games make us better at anything, it is precisely at visual tasks.

Meanwhile, I defer to no man in my admiration of the television series 24, but again Johnson begs us to forget the "content" and admire instead the complexity of the "social network" that populates the fiction. He even draws a cute little diagram with lines representing the relationships between characters. Is this really what makes 24 so good? "The content of the show may be about revenge killings and terrorist attacks," he says, once again hurriedly skipping over what he perceives to be the crap, "but the collateral learning involves something altogether different, and more nourishing. It's about relationships."

This is hilarious. I have learned nothing nourishing about relationships from 24; I would be deeply worried about any adult who claimed that she had. But the idea that learning about relationships is the desirable thing reveals something interesting. Johnson poses as a hip, wired, ultramodern thinker, yet his notion of cultural value is extraordinarily conservative - based, once again, on values specific to literature. There is a generic problem in our culture with film or pop critics who read everything as a text, and are incapable of discussing the visual or sonic aspects of their subject: Johnson, sadly, fits right in.

Everything Bad Is Good for You is in the end most interesting as an example of a particular philistine current in computer-age thinking. In an age of digitised media, everything is reduced to, and judged by, its brute sum of "information". "What are the rewards of reading?" Johnson asks rhetorically at one point. The answer is: "the information conveyed by the book, and the mental work you have to do to process and store that information." This is a barbaric, instrumentalist view of art. For a corrective, we may remember what André Gide said of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu: "If I try to find the quality I most admire in this work, it is its gratuitousness. I don't know of a more useless work, nor one less anxious to prove something."

Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Classic
  • Twitter Classic
  • Google Classic
bottom of page