The Church In The Age Of The TV Image

Simon Vibert

Television has always threatened serious preaching, both because of the influence it has upon the listening capacities of congregations and because of the competition it offers through entertaining communication techniques. I wish to argue that the threat is ever more real, the further down the road we go towards commercial television.

This paper is made up of two main sections. In section one I try to observe and evaluate the way in which television communicates, and the implications this has for the type of culture in which we live. In the second section, I attempt to draw out some theological implications in the light of these observations, and provide a framework to help us to evaluate our culture.

A brief analysis of communication in the age of the TV image

We live in a media age. Television has gained the 'lion's share' of our media time (we spend in the region of fifteen to twenty-plus hours per week in front of the television). Since the publication of the Broadcasting Bill (6 December 1989) numerous changes have begun to be made. Commercial television has only recently featured so highly in the English scene. The latest innovation directly affecting communication within the church is the decision by the diocese of Lichfield to use the new freedom provided by the Bill to compete in the commercial world by advertising on prime-time television.

The Broadcasting Bill's provision for commercial funding in effect means that television is now controlled by the advertiser. The knock-on effect is that - even on 'commercial-free BBC!' - ratings have become so much more important, and the two non-commercial stations have to compete with the assumptions of those who are reliant upon audience cohesion through advertising. It is important to recognise that television is evolving while at the same time reflecting and shaping the society and culture in which we live.

This is the society and culture in which the church is called to proclaim the Word of God, nurture the people of God, and transform its culture under the power of God. We do not need to cite viewing figures to appreciate that television is widely watched. My primary concern in this paper is not what people are watching.1 I think there are more fundamental questions:

The Church in the Age of the TV Image

  • 1) In what kind of culture are we now living?
  • 2) What biblical theology do we bring to bear upon our culture:
    • to enable us to understand it?
    • to shun what is contrary to the Gospel?
    • to welcome and foster what is glorifying to God?

There is much that can be said about television. I would like to confine these opening observations to the aspects (and dangers) which, in my view, indicate most clearly the shape of a culture which has been moulded by television.

1. The world of the visual

Television relies heavily upon the visual to communicate, which will increasingly be the case because of the priority now given to advertising, where the visual emphasis is much more apparent.2 Rapid, unconnected images in modern adverts reinforce the prevalent truism that 'Seeing is believing'. What I see is what sells. It is not primarily through conscious reasoning that I am persuaded, but through the delightful images I see.

It is from advertisers that the guiding rule - 'First paint a picture of the type of person you would like to be and then I will show you how my product will enable you to attain that goal' - has filtered into every part of broadcasting. As we shall observe, the visual is a, if not the, priority affecting the news as well as every other area of television entertainment. The 'image' is all-important.

Quote: Adverts reinforce the prevalent truism that 'seeing is believing.'

Should we be critical of this use of the visual? It is worth observing a few characteristics or the moving image:

a) Through the image, a part of the whole can be grasped very quickly and impressions can be formed (the eye's ability to process what is seen is so much faster than the ear's capacity to understand what is heard).

b) The image is usually entertaining, offering immediate satisfaction and titillation. Even when the image is appalling, it is, somehow, still compelling.

c) It is possible (and certain in advertising) to portray one thing through the image, and say something quite different without viewers being really aware of discrepancies. This is a common technique employed in TV advertising, without viewers always being conscious of it. For example, a woman who is drab and unexciting in appearance is shown using a certain product and then finds herself surrounded by flowers and men. If this were said to be the effect of any product, we would not believe it and would soon turn off. But when what is said about the product is factual and what is shown is exaggerated and fantastic, the image has the power to seduce - and hence to persuade.

d) The image is powerful in evoking immediate reactions: seeing a prime minister patting a child's head, a terrorist in a gun battle, starving people in the developing world - all evoke immediate 'gut' reactions.

2. The world of the instant

Peter Hennessy has analysed the influence of quick success upon possible long-term results in political life:

  • Now I have a suspicion that the professionalisation of contemporary political life - politicians plotting their careers early and reaching Parliament young before they have cracked another job first - means that the familiar and the clichéd are all that they bring to political life. They have no past, in which learning and non-partisan experience have flourished, to decline from once they have slipped past the selection committees and into their safe seats ... 3

Think for a moment about a culture which divorces us from our past. Instead of applying these observations on the influence of context to the politician, apply them to the influence on politics in general under the eyes of the camera. When the television camera focuses upon a parliamentary debate for the news round-up we, as viewers, have no conception of what has gone before or what is to follow. All we have is what we see. The extent of political discourse on TV is reduced to two minutes of 'Prime Minister's Question Time'. We have already noticed that television advertising encourages us - through the use of the visually dominant images - to pay attention to the present. 'Buy now!', it taunts. Present world events cannot be properly interpreted without the benefit of the experience of the past, or the foresight of the future. The image-world of TV reporting can only show us the present.

The danger is that political discussion is shaped into a mould that will provide two minutes' worth of television. The 'now' is all-important, and life is viewed as being a series of broken 'instants'. This contrasts with a word-orientated medium such as some radio or printed matter. For example, before a writer may comment on 'Prime Minister's Question Time', hearing and understanding have to have taken place. Time is required to formulate an idea and structure it.

Quote: Fast food needs to be easily digestible.

The TV eye focuses us into a context of 'no context'. This is at best incomplete observation, which inevitably affects content. The news itself is made up of bite-size chunks. Hackneyed clichés and limited vocabulary become necessities because words and language are no longer the key to communication. The essence of successful television reporting is, apparently, 'be fast and easily consumed'. A large amount is communicated in a very short space of time - or is it?

News focuses on world capitals and the leading figures of these countries. It is assumed that events in London or Washington provide the content for the day's broadcast. Greater attention is given to these areas. More is filmed because it is already assumed that more will happen there. Thus the assumption that news will come from the major cities becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite the claim that we receive the 'World News', the reporting in fact limits the possibility of global awareness.4 Television broadcasting, as Neil Postman points out, focuses on images rather than words. This affects content just as much as the content of verbal communication is affected by the language used:

  • One must begin, I think, by pointing to the obvious fact that the written word, and an oratory based upon it, has a content: a semantic, paraphrasable, prepositional content ... Whenever language is the principal medium of communication ... an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escaping from its meaning when language is the instrument guiding one's thoughts.5

Television news gives us very little historical or logical context. The visual emphasis means that what we see is all we know. We are not encouraged to ask 'What preceded this event?' or 'What followed it?' What is seen keeps us in the world of the now. The content of the news does not encourage us to participate in sequential thinking. I do not wish to be simplistic. Obviously there are words with the images, but which is recorded first? My concern is that the word is subservient to the image.

Neil Postman observes how quickly the distribution of information has changed in our decade. Amusing Ourselves to Death is 'an inquiry into and a lament about the most significant American cultural fact of the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the Age of Typography and the ascendancy of the Age of Television.'6

He shows how the age of the printing-press transformed the thinking and readership ability of the American people. The shift from speech to print meant that words could be examined and thought over. People who were separated geographically could read the same thoughts as literature and news spread. Consequently, the printing-press laid down certain ground rules as to the kind of material which could be easily disseminated. Under the primacy of the television set, the trend has been radically reversed.

Quote: Never before in the field of human communication is so much said, to so many, with so few words.

In 1989 considerable controversy arose over the proposals to televise proceedings in the House of Commons. I have not been alone in noticing one almost immediate effect of this. What has become the most important event in televised Parliament? The answer is 'Prime Minister's Question Time'. Exchanges between party leaders are succinct and well rehearsed. Highly polemical, pithy tirades provide excellent TV viewing. Television has meant that policies have to be proposed and defended in the space of a few seconds. The possibility of in-depth debating is minimal. Television coverage needs to see quick answers and conclusions, rather than discussions, if viewers are to be kept. A 'TV image' which is quickly identifiable and highly stereotypical is encouraged.

During the BBC's coverage of the 1992 election campaign, Olivia O'Leary showed audience reactions when they saw their party leaders making campaign addresses. She observed that when John Major was shown getting angry, Conservative popularity dropped. In fact, during the campaign that image of John Major was quickly dropped and the 'nice guy' impression returned.7

How can one advise a politician beginning his career in an age where the camera seems all-pervasive? To young politicians planning a long and successful parliamentary career, Peter Hennessy warns:

  • No young politician should seek to imitate Churchill for three reasons: it always sounds like a parody; nobody these days could genuinely compose in such a style; radio and television mean you couldn't get away with it. Why? Because the great man used the same word patterns time after time and he got away with it because his audience was always different.
  • Take his famous eulogy to the Royal Air Force in 1940: 'Never before in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.' It had a very long antecedence. The first time it saw the light of a public meeting was during the Oldham by-election in 1899: 'Never before were there so many people in England and never before have they had so much to eat.' It went through several refinements in the next four decades, the most bizarre being Churchill's reflection, as a junior minister at the Colonial Office in 1908 while gazing over a dam across the Nile, that 'Nowhere else in the world could so enormous a mass of water be held up by so little masonry.'8

Because television news gives us a world which is upheld in an instant, what has gone before is thought to be redundant and the future is of very little concern. The late Malcolm Muggeridge was better qualified than most to see television reporting in context. He observed that 'news becomes, not so much what has happened, as what can be seen as happening, or seems to have happened.'9

It takes no time to see, but it takes time to hear - and longer still to understand. News is not a reporting of historical facts, but the observation of things as they happen. It is the persuasiveness of the image that has this effect. Jacques Ellul has summarised this marvellously:

  • Duration has no effect on [the] image which is conveyed to me by my sight. It is always an instantaneous matter. No duration is included in an image ... My sight is not really continuous, even when I fix my gaze on the same broom plant, I do not see it change. I see it; then an instant later I see it again and the image is imperceptibly different.10

Sight works in such a way that, though one has the impression of flow and continuity, what is seen is a series of 'now' points. Communication which puts sight as the priority, focuses upon the instant.

3. The world of the secular

The word 'secular' comes from saeculum, meaning 'world'. R. C. Sproul has contrasted this with the other word for 'world', mundus,11 which has the meaning of the world in terms of where we live, this planet in space. Saeculum, on the other hand, refers to the world in relationship to time, the here and now.

It would be unfair to blame television for what it is unable to do; that would be rather like blaming the eye for only being able to see. It is important, however, to notice that television is, and can only be, secular. It is not possible for it to focus our attention outside of time. Television is restricted to this world. Television is visually oriented and cannot help us in the region of the unseen. Television is temporally oriented and cannot take us into the realm of the spiritual. Television is this-world oriented and restricted to time, and has no capacity to focus our gaze on eternity.

Focusing upon the visual and the instant inevitably makes us secular people. Both the visual and the instant elements of television combine to restrict its coverage to secular issues, which is only a short step away from secularism. To quote Ellul again:

  • The image prevents me from taking my distance. And if I cannot establish a certain distance, I can neither judge nor criticize.12

Postman puts this into the language the secularist will understand:

  • We are now so thoroughly adjusted to the 'Now ... this' world of news - a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or to the future or to other events - that all assumptions of coherence have vanished. And so, perforce, has contradiction. In the context of no context, so to speak, it simply disappears, and in its absence what possible interest could there be in a list of what the President says now and what he said then? It is merely a rehash of old news, and there is nothing interesting or entertaining in that. The only thing to be amused about is the bafflement of reporters at the public's indifference. There is an irony in the fact that the very group that has taken the world apart should, on trying to piece it together again, be surprised that no one notices much or cares.13

A sketchy framework to begin building a biblical theology for contemporary communication

To observe our culture is difficult. This is made harder in a pluralistic society where no one philosophy or cultural trend prevails. However, even making these preliminary observations of the television culture does not yet complete our task. We are concerned to bring biblical theology to interpret and mould our culture.

Such a task is not easy. We are not dealing with a single issue here: rather, we are considering framework questions. In other words, we are attempting to ascertain the prevalent world-view and then bring a theological world-view to bear upon it. This involves dealing with issues of communication, which impinge upon our very understanding of the heart of God.

To say this is not popular among modern communicators. It is commonly assumed that communication means and methods are culturally defined. Accordingly, the argument goes, if we get the message right, then all means are at our disposal to communicate.

Such an impression is mistaken. For the message and the means, the content and the media, are inextricable. This does not necessarily mean, as Marshall Mcluhan has said, that 'The medium is the message'. But certainly the medium is part of the message. I am not against using modern means of communication, but first I would want to ask:

  • 1) How did God choose to communicate to humankind?
  • 2) What model, if any, does that set up for human communication?
  • 3) Is the Bible's stance on communication only culturally defined?

We have observed three areas of television communication. They indicate the emphasis of television culture: the visual, the instant and the secular. We may distinguish between them but we cannot separate them. They make up television's moulding or reflection (or both) of our society.

How can we bring any theological critique of these cultural trends? The Bible was written in far less complicated cultures, prior to the graphics revolution, mass media or even the printing-press. However, whilst admittedly painting with very broad brush-strokes, the Bible has much to say about communication and the visual, and from this we can construct a framework which will enable us to have something to say to our present culture.

1 - Idolatry is forbidden

Quote: Veneration of human-made visual images reveals the fallenness m humankind.

Though perhaps not immediately apparent, God's injunctions in the Old Testament enable us to begin framework building. The first two commandments directly bear upon a biblical attitude towards image-making and modern worship.

a) The first commandment

  • 'You shall have no other gods before me' (Exod. 20:3).

Israel are first encouraged to look back to their beginnings in the land God promised. God rescued them from slavery and expected their obedience in return. They were to have no affinity with the polytheism of the Egyptians they had left behind, but rather they were to acknowledge the one Creator and God.

The heart of the problem of idolatry is allowing that which is created to come before the Creator. The word translated 'before' in the NIV could be 'besides'. There is ongoing debate over whether the commandment refers to an attempt to replace God, or to add to God. Either option is abhorrent. In Exodus 32, the incident of the golden calf illustrates graphically the ease with which Israel could make gods to go before them (v.1). It is not clear whether they thought that they were substituting gods, or making an extra god whom they could control and who would fall into line with what their impatience demanded. The reality, from God's perspective, was that by adding images they had turned from the true God (vv.8-10).

According to God's priorities, everything is divided into Creator or created. Whenever the creation is given precedence over the Creator, then his people are guilty of idolatry.

The Bible also assumes that worship is something which involves the whole person. It is to be from our hearts, which signifies not just the emotional side but the very seat of our being. We might not bow down physically to television, nor present burnt offerings, but we may still make it an idol and offer worship. If television focuses our attention on creation over and above the Creator, if it occupies the central place in our time, if it encourages immorality, or if it in any way comes before God, then it is an idol. Like any false god, service of this god allows us to be an individual, to be independent, indulgent, and to worship self.

b) 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. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God ... ' (Exod. 20:4).

Here the issue focuses upon the way in which the true God is to be worshipped. God is a God who has revealed himself through the word: 'a voice, heard, from the fire' (e.g. Deut. 4:33). To try and make God visible in any form is abominable to God. Von Rad argues that one of the oldest applications of this command is found in Deuteronomy 27:15. This implies that image-making stands in complete antithesis to the true revelation of God.14 The reason for reverent restraint in Exodus 3:2 is that no one, not even the devout Moses, can get more than a glimpse of God. If sight of God is impossible for the impure (Matt. 5:8), then image-making (which is the concrete expression of sight) is even less likely to be an expression of true reverence.

The preamble to the commandments in Deuteronomy is significant. God's immanence among his people is only through the word, and for this reason no view of God is allowed. In short, the writer says that the means of revelation sets the parameters on the medium of communication. In his book on theological methodology and epistemology, John Frame argues that there are restrictions to the knowledge of God. God may only be known through the means he has chosen to reveal himself. As head of the covenant, his involvement with his creatures is only on the basis of the strictures of the covenant, set out by the obligations arising out of the character of God himself.15

To make images of God is not just to displease God, but ultimately it is to change gods. Hence the link between commandments one and two: when two is broken, one inexorably follows. When Israel failed to recognise God's separateness from - and God's sovereignty over - creation, they were to assume that they had done more than disobey and rebel against God. According to M. Noth, because of the relationship between the image and what it portrayed, it was assumed that, in the making of an image, the maker was enabled to exercise power over the being represented and hence create gods he could control.16

Again, it is important that we acknowledge that the application to television is a complicated one. There may be no conscious 'worship' involved. However, I do not believe that the Bible allows us to think simplistically in this area.

2. Covetousness steals our desire for God's heart

Adverts incite desire. The Bible calls desire for the things of the world 'covetousness'. Warnings about the dangers of covetousness are very clear (e.g. Exod. 20:17; 1 John 2:15-17; cf. Gen. 3:6f.) and must be heeded.

In Genesis 3, sin is at least partly related to sight. The serpent promised Eve that no harm would come to her if she obeyed him rather than God - in fact her eyes would be opened. The fivefold downward step consisted of Eve 'Seeing ... desiring ... faking ... eating ... giving' (v.6). Is there a deliberate contrast here between the desire incited by what they saw and the obedience expected from what they had heard? 'But God did say ... they heard ... they hid ... ' (vv.3,8). Is there perhaps an implied contrast in Hebrews 11:1, where faith is related to what is not seen?

Television also encourages us to 'look and want', making covetousness a driving-force in consumption. Why is this wrong? There are two words which could be translated as 'covetousness':

a) epithymia

This word is usually rendered 'desire, want, lust ... '. It is used in the Septuagint in Exodus 20:17, and usually translated as 'thou shalt not covet'. It can refer to either good desires or bad desires. Galatians 5:16f. expresses the Christian conflict in the form of contrary desires: the bad need starving and the good need feeding. Romans 12:2 and 1 John 2:15-17 illustrate that desire motivates the will: if good desires are fostered, good conduct follows; if bad desires are fostered, bad conduct follows.

The 'lust of the eyes' (1 John 2:16) is part of the pull of the world. Jesus taught that desiring and acting are on a sliding scale (Matt. 5:28; Mark 4:19). Etymologically the word 'pornography' comes from the Greek word porneia, meaning adultery, whilst porneuo means prostitution. The development of the use of the word takes us from sight, to action, to character. The English use of the word 'pornography' recognises the role of the visual in this downward spiral. The desire for entertainment, hedonism, violence, adultery and fornication are largely visually stimulated, and such desire is insatiable, formulating character and, ultimately, culture.

b) pleonexia

Paul always uses this word to refer to bad conduct. The word is variously translated: 'exploit' (2 Cor. 7:2; 12:17f.j, 'greed' (1 Thess. 2:5), 'take advantage' (1 Thess. 4:6), 'outwit/deceive' (2 Cor. 2:1), 'idolatry' (Eph. 5:5), 'lust' (Eph. 4:19; Col. 3:5). The assumption is made in each case that the desire will pull men away from serving God and enslave them in the values of this world.

Self-centred, unsanctified desire is the way of the world. The compounding of sin following judgement (spoken of in Romans 1:18ff.) indicates that the sin we desire becomes our master. Inevitably our desires need to be controlled, and the challenge of the tenth commandment taken seriously:

  • The obedience to God's will which Jesus exemplified and called for in all his disciples is the antithesis of the 'Buy now, pay later' ethic of the hedonists, whether ancient or modern. The future is both too wonderful and too terrible to be ignored in the decision-making that must be done day to day. Because that future impinges on the present, obedience becomes a way of being set free from immediate demands in order to make decisions in the light of greater realities.17

The desire induced by television advertising in particular can only be bad - leading to the dulling of the mind and self-indulgence. To allow appearance and impressions to fill our minds is therefore to focus upon what is fleeting and superficial (1 John 2:17).

3. Secularism is the 'ism' of the fool18

The step from 'secular' (which is not all bad) to 'secularism' is a small one. Secularism not only encourages scepticism of the eternal; it also affects attitudes in the realm of time. For a 'now-centredness' gives little context in which to place any event of history. Sproul reminds us that, with its emphasis on transcendence and eternity, 'the biblical world-view is always concerned with the long term'19 which contrasts with the secularist's philosophy that 'Right now counts for - right now!'

It is not the ability to see that makes a person a secularist, but (if we may use 'double-speak') an attitude which cannot see beyond what is seen! Similarly, television may not be criticised for the ability to show us what 'is', but for an attitude which perpetuates the myth that all that is shown is all that there is!

Part of this issue concerns that of historical context, which is important for accurate reporting of historical events. How can we claim to be informed without the 'distance' which accurate reporting requires?

Perhaps I may quote from a familiar passage:

  • Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

John Stott, in his commentary on Acts, points out that this is the real preface to the book of Acts, where Luke continues his account of what Jesus did through the Spirit-filled church.20

Luke was an historical reporter. The theme of Acts is to be found in the words of Jesus in chapter 1:8:

  • But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

To write an accurate account required a certain distance and elapsing of time. Who were the most reliable witnesses of Jesus' death, resurrection, ascension and glorification? Surely they were only those who could have seen:

Article composed with the free HTML5 editor software.

  • the life of Jesus,
  • then the death of Jesus,
  • then the resurrection of Jesus,
  • then the ascension of Jesus,
  • then the sending of the Holy Spirit,
  • then the witness of the church in Jerusalem,
  • then the witness of the church in Judea and Samaria,
  • then the witness of the church to the ends of the earth.

Luke's two-volume work follows this pattern from beginning to end: that is, from the incarnation of Christ to the spread of the church worldwide. He also looks forward to the future fulfilment of the events. Notice three very simple points:

a) Authentic witnesses were those who were able to see the events and accurately report the whole story.

b) To write too soon would mean that the reporter missed the whole story. In our day it would be easy to imagine an enthusiastic reporter on the scene at Jesus' death, wiring back the headlines for the evening news. Failing to wait for the whole story would miss the point altogether, and the early editions of the Sunday papers would have the story incorrectly reported!

c) An authentic report had to be compiled as soon as all the details were amassed. To write too late - as many did after the apostolic age - would miss out the details which only an eyewitness could provide.21 The authenticity of first-hand reporting would be lost.

Getting the events we see reported on television news into context is almost impossible. It is a little easier with some radio and some newspapers because the emphasis is upon word rather than sight, and 'distance' rather than immediacy.

Inevitably, radio and the press are aware that they are communicating to television-educated minds. It is this awareness which has been responsible for changing the format of each in recent years.22

Of course, we must concede that the reporter and the historian have different functions. Simplistically, the reporter is involved in observation and retelling, whilst the historian is also involved in interpretation. However, the danger is that the historian's work is assumed to be accomplished by the reporter. If TV reporting is the window through which we observe political events of today, is it likely that a secular culture will later gain the 'distance' with which to interpret these events objectively?


Confronting the culture with the Word

I have outlined three theological themes concerning a biblical attitude towards God (idolatry is forbidden), the things of this world (covetousness is to be shunned), and this life (in relationship to the eternal). We need to appreciate that the form a culture and society takes is shaped, at least in part, by theological presuppositions (accurate, i.e. biblical, or inaccurate). Aligning a culture under a biblical theology involves fighting certain battles:

1 - Battle for the mind

How does change happen to a person? Irrespective of whether the influences upon that person are good - leading to the development of Christian character and spiritual fruit - or bad - leading to covetousness or idolatry - the process is the same.

Teaching from passages like Romans 12:1f., Galatians 6:7ff., 1 Peter 1:13f., and Philippians 4:8, indicate that there is a chain of events, culminating in a way of living:

  • a) Feeding the mind;
  • b) Effecting the desires;
  • c) Moulding the will;
  • d) Reaping a lifestyle.

The Christian response to this world is to foster desire directed towards God (Phil. 1:23; 4:8). Such an attitude reverses the downward spiral set in motion by futile thinking (Rom. 1:22).23

'Popular' culture assumes that it is possible to change morality and lifestyle. It is assumed that the choice to change is made in the will or emotions. The Bible speaks in terms of sowing and reaping. The thoughts we sow determine the behaviour we reap. The best way to understand the degeneration of our culture is to appreciate what is filling the minds of its citizens through the culture's most dominant influence: television.

2. Battle for the word

It needs to be said that the cliché, 'A picture is worth a thousand words', is not true! - if it stands alone and unexplained.

We noted earlier, when looking at the first two commandments, that God's invisibility does not mean inaccessibility. The battle for the word involves restating the fact that 'faith is the substance of things unseen' (Heb. 1 1:3). It is not necessary to communicate visually in order to make God known. However intense the pressure to adopt contemporary means of ommunication, it is important that we emphasise that the visual is not all-important (we shall have more to say about the implications of this in our concluding section).

Quote: Truth in a world where only appearances count.

3. Battle for the truth

Sight then, word now

The Bible does have something to say about the relationship between seeing and believing. In his Gospel, John encourages us to 'see and believe', or perhaps we should say, 'believe and see'. In the person of Jesus Christ, appearance, reality and truth are joined. Because of the Incarnation, what was seen could be trusted: the glory of God, revealed in the Son. The separation of truth and what only appears to be truth, which happened in the Fall, was for a time reconciled in Jesus. For that reason, 'seeing' Jesus can be trusted, although, of course, it is seeing of a very different kind. The theme of sight features prominently in the Gospel:

'No one has ever seen God' (1:18).

'We testify to what we have seen' (3:11).

'Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life'(3:36).

'You have seen me and still you do not believe' (6:36).

'No one has seen the Father except he who is from God' (6:46).

'So I went and washed, and then I could see' (9:11).

'When he looks at me he sees the Father' (12:45).

'Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father' (14:9).

'Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed' (20:29).

The nature of Christian revelation

How does John's Gospel help us to appreciate the relationship between what is seen and what we believe? None of the Gospels tells us what Jesus looks like, and we are not to try to see him that way. But we do 'see' through the 'sight' that he gives!

This is the heart of the Christian understanding of revelation. As John says, 'No one has ever seen God', but a lot of people saw Jesus.

  • The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (1:14).

Jesus is the unveiling of God. The invitation of those first converts was to 'come and see' (1:46b). Actually, it is the fact that God sees us that is significant (1:48b).

Yet the privilege of seeing Jesus goes beyond seeing a God appearing as a man in flesh and blood. John is concerned with seeing what is beyond sight. He would have understood our phrase 'Do you see this?' as relating to understanding and comprehension. This theme is interwoven throughout the book. Let us look at three of the characters in the Gospel who come to recognise that there is more to Jesus than meets the eye.

1. The man born blind (1 John 9)

In certain places in Jersey, where I come from, the coast of France can be seen on a clear day. On one occasion I took a visiting friend of mine to the end of a breakwater to admire the view. But, as often happens on the coast, the view was completely obliterated by a fog, and we could not see more than a few hundred yards. There was nothing wrong with my friend's eyes, and France was there, but a mist had completely obscured the sight. So, too, in the language of this Gospel, it is the prejudice which comes from sin which obscures our spiritual sight. The truth is there, but it takes the unveiling of our eyes - a work which only God in his mercy does - to cut through our blind preconceptions.

Jesus uses this meeting with the man born blind to show that, without the Saviour's touch, spiritual blindness is as incurable as physical blindness. This man never knew what it was like to see (v.11), yet Jesus uses him as an example of the universal problem of spiritual blindness. 'Do you believe in the Son of Man?', he asks him (v.35). 'You have now seen him; in fact he is the one speaking to you' (v.37). We can detect a certain irony in Jesus' remark! 'Now you have seen me (physically); you can come to see me (spiritually).'

For John, faith concerns seeing what is beyond sight. The Pharisees are 'blind' because they claimed they could see, but remained in their guilt (v.41). Indeed, we never really leave this theme in John's Gospel:

  • For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: 'He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn - and I would heal them.' Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus' glory and spoke about it (12:39-41).

2. Philip (John 14:5-14)

'Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us' (v.8). 'If only I could see God without having to believe what is not seen, that would settle it all.' Philip would have been very much at home in our day!

Jesus responds by saying that seeing him is as much of the Father as one needs to see. Seeing was believing for those first apostles. God was revealed in flesh and blood before their very eyes. Even Philip can misunderstand and receive a gentle rebuke from Jesus. Seeing involves perception and submission which comes from a God-given disposition to believe what is seen.

3. Thomas (John 20:24-31)

Only when we look at Thomas' request for visible proof of Jesus' resurrection does John finally explain how we - who may not see Jesus walking and talking with us - may believe in a God yet unseen.

Leaving aside for a moment the prologue - where the mission of the Son is introduced (John 1:1-17) - and the epilogue - where the work of the church is initiated (John 21:1-25) -we have a Gospel which begins by saying:

  • No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known (1:18),

and ends with the Jesus' words to Thomas:

  • Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (20:29).

We are those who have 'not seen', and we are the ones who are reliant upon all that has been written down for our belief (20:30f). For us, faith is not related to sight. For Thomas, the issue was quite different. He gets a lot of bad press from Christian preachers, but put yourself in his shoes for a moment.

First, Thomas knew that Jesus was dead! He had not been with the other disciples when Jesus had appeared to them. No doubt his reasoning would have been approved by our logical syllogising!

  • Premise one: Jesus died and was buried.
  • Premise two: Dead men stay dead!
  • Conclusion: Jesus has not risen from the dead.

This doubt was only removed when he saw the risen Jesus. Seeing Jesus fully removed his doubt. Did Thomas actually handle Jesus, as he had requested?

Perhaps me point of the incident was precisely that seeing was enough. Thomas makes one of the clearest professions of faith in Jesus in the Gospel: 'My Lord and my God' (20:28).

So the Gospel of John comes to a dramatic conclusion. No one has ever seen God, but many saw Jesus. Thomas moved from doubt to faith when he saw the risen Jesus. For him it was not so much 'Seeing is believing', but 'Believing is seeing!' For us? We believe because we read and hear. The apostles had a remarkable privilege, to be true eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus (1 John 1:1-4). Our faith is based upon the testimony of reliable witnesses, but even for those apostles to 'see' (orao), it meant 'to be admitted as a witness' (3:36). To see God means to know God. Notice these telling words in 3 John 11:

  • Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.

And so 'Seeing and Believing' is used as a formula for coming to true faith [John 1:46, 48ff.; 20:8, 29). This means seeing beyond the physical, beyond human perception, to what is unveiled through faith.

Jacques Ellul summarises this superbly:

  • The Incarnation is the only moment in world history when truth rejoins reality [appearances], when it completely penetrates reality [appearances] and changes it at its root. The Incarnation is the point where reality [appearance] ceases being a diversion from truth and where truth ceases being the fatal judgement on reality [appearances]. At this moment the Word can be seen. Sight can be believed (because in the Incarnation, but there only, sight is related to truth). The image, which normally does not have the force of truth, becomes true when the image is Jesus Christ, who is the image of the living God. For this reason John emphasises sight - because here reality [appearance] is penetrated by truth.24

To understand Ellul's use of words, we need to appreciate the force of what he is saying. We cannot equate 'reality' (that is appearances, what is seen) with 'truth', which is of a quite different order. But we are not inclined to think that this is true in a visually dominated age. The word relates to what is not seen (2 Cor. 4:1 8; Heb. 1 1:1,3). Faith relates to an invisible future. The battle for truth involves denying that truth can be seen. Muggeridge offers the options of 'media-fantasy' or 'Christ-reality':

  • The media have created, and belong to, a world of fantasy, the more dangerous because it purports to be and is largely taken as being, the real world. Christ, on the other hand, proclaimed a new dimension of reality, so that Christendom, based on this reality, could emerge from the fantasy of a decomposing Roman civilisation ... Thus the effect of the media at all levels is to draw people away from reality, which means away from Christ and into fantasy.25

The fantasy world of sight described by Muggeridge is one where the ability to see something is the only yardstick by which we assess whether something is believable or true. We must conclude that the image cannot communicate truth. The visual on its own is an inadequate educator, because a television orientation has taught us that what we see is there to entertain.

The battle for truth is to be fought on a front where it is assumed that appearances are all that matter and questions of truth are unanswerable.


Perhaps above everything else, it needs to be restated that, in revealing himself to humankind. God showed that the word had priority over sight. The consequence of this for the Christian church is that the means of revelation has become the model of communication. Hence the word is the way of communicating, not just the content of our communication. A culture which is visually-dominated, focused upon the instant and secular in its outlook, will not be transformed into a biblical world-view by using TV as the means of communication. The culture which has been shaped by television cannot then be transformed positively by using the same means of communication, however much we may alter the message.

Scripture affirms that we have a responsibility to transform our culture whilst at the same time not being transformed by it. J. B. Phillips' translation of Romans 12:2 is helpful here:

Do not let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of maturity.


As we have begun to build a framework for communicating today, some things have become immediately apparent. Writ large throughout the Bible is a condemnation of image-making, for all the reasons mentioned in the previous section. If image-making is the wrong way of communicating to God, similarly we cannot expect God to reveal himself to us through images. In fact, it is quite the reverse: image-making is a reflection of a flight from God (Rom. 1:21-23).

However, whilst image-making is condemned, imagery is far from absent in the Bible. Perhaps it is ironic that some of the richest verbal language is used in the condemnation of image-making. If we were to look at the condemnation of idolatry which the prophet uses in Isaiah 44, we would see that the very weapon he uses to disarm the false worship of God through images is that of mockery and metaphor (e.g., see vv. 12-20). We would conclude that being imaginative verbally is something quite different from being visual.

'Painting with the tongue' requires imagination on the part of the communicator and the audience. But that message, when skillfully encoded and accurately decoded, is powerful.

We began this paper by observing that television provides a threat to serious preaching. That threat is perceived in many areas. First, we are told, listening capacities are reduced because television has taught us to expect a frequent change in style of presentation - of presenter, scenery, topic - and this to be accompanied by a rapid succession of visual images. Preaching, it is presumed, is too long and too dull in a TV age.

Secondly, it is argued that modern people need images in order to understand. 'Seeing is believing', we are told: Word + visual = greater retention. 'So', they say, 'when you speak, use drama, overhead projector, music and interviews as well. The word on its own is ineffective.'

Thirdly, television teaches us that dialogue, not monologue, is most effective. Debate 'works' on TV: preaching does not. Consequently, we have produced a culture in which people want to be reasoned with by being involved in discussion and not be receiving tirades - which is what preaching is perceived as doing.

These are important questions. I cannot 'duck' them completely, but I am also aware that there is not the space to deal with them in this paper. The value of expository preaching needs fuller treatment and for this I am most grateful to James Philip.26 My brief is to give three pointers in the right direction:

1. Preaching is the means God has ordained to speak to souls.

It is through preaching that God addresses individuals. When God addresses a conscience, time and listening capacities cease to be the significant factor:

  • Since then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God and I hope it is also plain to your conscience .... For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (2 Cor. 5:11,14).

The preacher has the awesome privilege of being God's ambassador, imploring people to be reconciled to him (v.19f.). But if he is doing his job properly, then it is the message which takes over and the substance of that message is the living God. We interact with a personal God.

Dick Keyes argues that because God is the author of truth and the church has the responsibility to stand for that truth, the church can provide a continuity which is lost in modern communication:

  • In an image-orientated culture, the Christian church must be attuned to the dangers of importing the world's methodologies and means of communication uncritically. The church has at its disposal a deep and rich source of guidance in the Bible itself, not just in the form of lists of rules, but in the form of profound insights and obligations about who people are, how they are to be treated, how the message of God is to be communicated and so on. We are living in a culture which, by contrast, has no coherent view of man and has only one guide to action, which is 'Does it work?'27

It seems to me that we should appreciate that in sitting under biblical preaching, the 'audience' is not there to try to interpret the message. Rather it is the message which interprets the hearer! Who then are we to change the medium?

2. It is a mistake to undervalue the power of the tongue

I am not just referring to the many warnings against mishandling our tongues, found in Proverbs and James, although these passages are significant in the assumptions they make about the power of words. My concern is that we regain confidence in the significance of words and their impact.

It is sometimes argued that the Bible is very visual in its portrayal of the truth. Reading certain parts of the Bible can be very dramatic. Imagine the army of motley slaves being pursued by the Egyptians as the water of the Nile river parts to let them through, and the same water drowns their enemies; the drama of the Passover celebrations with the slaughtering of a young lamb and the smearing of fresh blood; the grand conquest on the mount of Carmel as flames descend, licking up the sacrifice made by Elijah to the astonishment of the scores of Baal worshippers; Jeremiah with his mantle; Amos with his plumb-line; Ezekiel, Hosea... and our Lord Jesus himself. This drama is very visual in its proclamation of the Word of the Lord. So how can we say that there are dangers involved in emphasising visual communication today? Certainly the Bible does not always see a conflict between 'word' and 'image'. Does that mean that the visual is generally encouraged in Scripture?

One way in which the Bible speaks about the visual and the verbal is in terms of Word and Sacrament. The Sacraments are the visible signs which stand alongside the Word. In the Old Testament we read of miracles, dreams, visions, earthquakes, the Sabbath and the Passover. In the New Testament there are two central signs: The Lord's Supper and Baptism. Eating and drinking (symbolised in the Lord's Supper) and washing (symbolised in Baptism) are activities pregnant with significance. John Calvin is surely right when he says that these two visual symbols do really reveal God, but not in silence. They cannot be understood if they are not accompanied by the expounded Word. The drama of the Lord's Supper cannot be meaningful if it is not explained: 'The Sacrament requires preaching to beget faith.'28

The battle which Calvin was facing in the sixteenth century was against a Roman Catholic Church which tended to place Sacrament above Word, and visual above verbal. To promote the adoration of images was to misunderstand their purpose.. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are to be understood as the 'visible words of Christ'.29 They are God's visual aids. Just as the death and resurrection of Jesus were public and visible, so too the celebration of these Sacraments allow us, by faith, to partake in what Christ did then! It seems to me that the battles fought in a previous generation illustrate the biblical conviction that whilst the Word may stand on its own, visual symbols cannot be comprehended apart from words, without ambiguity or even idolatry.

Whether it be the bread, wine and water, or visions, dreams and interpretations, the Bible makes it clear that the message which the church has for the world is one which is undergirded by the Word of God, explaining, interpreting and applying what is seen. Visual events need interpretation in order to be understood. It is surely obvious that even words need interpretation - how much more then do visual events? The image on its own can be very ambiguous, as any clever film editor can show. Words, on the other hand, may give a framework for their interpretation.

If we are going to dare to continue preaching, we need to appreciate that mental picture-building ('imagination') is different from image-making. Jesus used parables as the means by which the truth was veiled for some and unveiled for others. The effect of the parable depended upon the heart-disposition of the hearers. Some have likened the effect of the truth to that of the sun: it is the same sun that hardens clay, which also melts snow. So, too, the truth entrenches a prior heart-disposition.

Parables are not entirely visual in their communication. Admittedly, Jesus may have pointed to a sower walking up and down the banks of the Galilean shore, but as readers we are left to imagine the scene. Similarly, parables like the one about ten virgins let the imagination do the work. One commentary on Mark 4 (the parable of sower and seed) describes the link between visual language and imagination in this way:

  • The parables make a direct appeal to the imagination and involve the hearers in the situation. This factor lends to the parable the character of an argument. It entices the hearers to judge the situation depicted, and then challenges them, directly or indirectly, to apply that judgement to themselves.30

Yes, there is a difference between visual language (which invites our active imagination mentally to make the pictures) and visual pictures (which present ready-made images needing interpretation). One may not, and should not, replace the other.

3. Placing a high value on proclamation does not negate the value of other verbal communication

It is helpful to remember that the culture in which Paul preached would have made criticisms of proclamation similar to those of our own day. The prevalent rhetorical style and cultural environment would have encouraged debate and 'academic' discussions, for entertainment as much as education. Paul's famous sermon (in Acts 17) arose out of a confrontation with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. His teaching accompanied that discussion. Elsewhere we read that Paul 'reasoned and persuaded' in the synagogues, which does not necessarily imply monologue. However, we need to be aware that biblical communication involves not just information for the ignorant and illumination for the blind, but presenting a message from God which is not debatable and to which the only appropriate response is believing, submissive, faith.

Words build relationships. Television may make 'couch potatoes', but preaching should never produce 'pew potatoes'! Through the 'foolishness or preaching' God establishes a relationship with human beings. It would be wrong to blame TV (at least solely) for a low confidence and aptitude in preaching. There are many factors which have contributed to a devaluing of the spoken word. What I have attempted to do is to assist our understanding of the age in which we live, help us to appreciate that God has already interpreted our needs through the Gospel, and then respond biblically and boldly.

TV may dent our confidence; it may daunt us and challenge our technique. But dare will still preach? Dare we not?

The Revd Simon Vibert is completing an M.Th. dissertation on 'Paul and Idolatry' for Glasgow University and is minister-in-charge of Trinity Church of England in Buxton, Derbyshire. The ideas for this paper have been adapted and expanded from an article of his, 'The Word in an Audio-Visual Age: Can we still preach the Gospel?', first published in Churchman, volume 106, 1992:2, pp. 147-158. Used with permission.


1 Although that is very important, I am looking at concerns which are wider than even that issue.

2 The advertiser knows that what we see is what induces the desire for products. Hence visual images are all important. See further my article 'TV Advertising: Shaping or Reflecting Society', Evangel, Spring 1992.

3 Peter Hennessy, The Independent, 25 September 1989.

4 Admittedly this is a problem for all the news media, but the necessity of reporting back live, or at least up-to-date, coverage can mean that we receive news which, if it had to be written and sent, would never reach us.

5 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, New York 1985, p.49f.

6 ibid., p.8.

7 'The Vote Race', BBC1, Sunday, 22 March 1992.

8 Hennessy, op. cit.

9 Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1977,p.62.

10 Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, E. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan 1985, p.9.

11 R. C. Sproul, Lifeviews, Fleming H. Revell, Old Tappan, New Jersey 1986, p.33.

12 Ellul, op. cit, p. 10.

13 Postman, op. cit., p.110 (emphasis i;s Postman's).

14 G. Von Rad, Old Testament I, English edn. Harper and Row, London 1962, p.215f.

15 John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, New Jersey 1987, p.1 Iff.

16 M. Norn, Exodus, English edn, SCM Press, London 1962, p. 162.

17 Peter C. Moore, Disarming the Secular Gods, IVP, Leicester 1989, p. 140.

18 Cf. Psalm 14:1; Romans 1:22. The 'fool' in the Bible is one who is morally corrupt, with a defiant attitude to the eternal and a defeatist attitude towards the temporal.

19 Sproul, op. cit., p.35.

20 John Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP, Leicester 1990, p.22.

21 This may also be a good reason for dismissing the longer endings of Mark's Gospel. I feel that they may be later attempts to show what was seen of early church life, and hence some experiences of the believers were read back into the reporting.

22 Hence the American newspaper USA Today writes self-consciously for a television audience. There are plenty of colour pictures, and articles are reduced to around 200 words. Radio One's 'The Steve Wright Show' has a similar 'magazine' approach to current affairs.

23 Compare Romans 1:22ff. with 12: If. and 12:9ff., where Paul shows the 'spiral' working in reverse.

24 Ellul, op. cit. p.79f. (words in square brackets added).

25 Muggeridge, op. cit., p.60.

26 James Philip, Recovering the Word: The need for expository preaching today, Orthos 11, Fellowship of Word and Spirit 1993.

27 D. Keyes, What in the world is real?, The Communication Institute, Champaign, Illinois 1982, p.99.

28 John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, F. L. Battles (translator) and J.T. McNeill (editor), Westminster Press, Philadelphia and SCM Press, London, 4:XIV:4.

29 R. S. Wallace, Word and Sacrament, p.71 ft.

30 W. L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London 1974.