October 18, 2016

A Plea for the Place of Words

Expounding insights gleaned, largely, from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

With both feet, we as a society have crossed the cultural border from an epoch of words and into an era of pictures (both still and moving). I get it. For I, too, am a child of my culture in many ways. There are many evenings when, for instance, rather than read to my children, I’d much rather just sit down in front of a screen and watch something together. It’s just easier that way. Listening requires more mental effort than watching; reading necessitates even more effort; and reading aloud still more. Plus, I understand that watching something on a screen (which almost always involves listening, too) engages an additional sense in ways that are often truly engaging, and sometimes helpful.

Further, I realize that even still imagery captures the eye much more rapidly than words – which is why books have artwork on their covers, and why we are now attaching such to our online sermons, and why pictures on Facebook seem to always generate a great many more ‘likes’ than plain text. Sight seems to be the dominant sense of modern mankind. And there are surely ways in which we should (within reason) make use of that tendency.

I understand all these things, and do not decry pictures and film, as such. And yet I do believe that, in our cultural evolution from words to images, we are in the process of losing some things quite precious. Most modern Americans, I dare say, read very little. And what they do read is often quite brief (and sometimes inane). And, if they do not attend church, it may have been years since many of our neighbors ever sat and concentrated on someone speaking for 30-60 minutes solid (if they’ve ever done so). And these are great losses, it seems to me.

For one thing, the hard work of reading or listening (as opposed to watching) is good for the mind. Forcing yourself to concentrate on a 45 minute speech, or on several consecutive chapters of a book, is good for us. Watching a movie or TV show, on the other hand, is often inactive. Ideas are merely thrown at us, rather than us having to mine them out of carefully crafted words. And thus, watching often doesn’t have the capacity for sharpening our minds the way focusing on words does. And it’s a dangerous thing, it seems to me, that we are raising a generation of children who do not know how to concentrate. Much of this problem, I am convinced, is because they are being raised with constantly moving pictures rather than with words that make them think.

Further, the rapid replacement of words with pictures means that we, of necessity, cannot handle many topics with an appropriate level of depth and/or sophistication. Pictures (moving and still) work well with the telling of stories, and sometimes the conveying of feelings. But they don’t work so well with outlining theological doctrines, and worldview beliefs, and political positions, and so on. For these we need words … often in large quantities. And, in a culture that is no longer apt to consume words in large quantities, is it any surprise that most Americans get their theology, their worldview, and their politics from brief soundbites, rather than with significant depth of research, thought, and understanding?

Finally, the waning epoch of words in our land will be a disaster spiritually, I am afraid. Because God has given us His truth (even the part of it that is story) not in pictures, but in words. And in a culture that incessantly prefers pictures to words, where will that leave us in a generation or two? Not in a good place, I am afraid. The Bible will lie more and more neglected. And so will preaching and good Christian books. Because we want images more than words; media players more than monologues; infographics more than essays; performers more than prophets.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Bible was kept locked in Latin, the tongue of the scholars (with translation into the common peoples’ languages forbidden). Meanwhile the church gave the people pictures (statues, relics, paintings, etc.) in place of words. And, while these visual media lacked ability to communicate the whole truth about God (as stated above), they were (and still are) quite proficient at serving as stand-ins for Him; at becoming idols, in other words. And, although not precisely in the same way, pictures often stand between men and God today, too … wooing us away from the written word, more rapidly exciting our affections, but unable to provide us the same level of food for thought or meat for the soul.

And so I am making a plea for the place of words in your life. I’m not suggesting you never watch a movie (we have some in our church library!), or that you never turn on the television, or that you close your Instagram account. But what I am saying is that you will be much the poorer – spiritually, mentally, and in terms of your understanding of the world – if you adopt film, and television, and YouTube, and social media imagery as your primary source of mental intake.

So ask yourself: When is the last time I read a book all the way through? Or, even more so, when is the last time I read a Christian book all the way through? And how many movies have I watched in that same span of time? And further, do I have the attention span to focus on more than just a few verses of the Bible at a time? God has chosen to communicate to us in words … but is my mental lifestyle conducive to receiving His truth in the way He has chosen to disseminate it?


For more on the cultural shift from words to pictures, see Neil Postman’s seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death, to which I owe most of the thinking above.

No comments: