Monday, February 21, 2005

The Vanishing Word by Arthur W. Hunt

I have just finished reading a most fascinating book called The Vanishing Word by Arthur W. Hunt III. At the risk of oversimplification, let me summarize my understanding of Hunt’s thesis. Basically he ties classic Judaism/Christianity with word-based thinking and communication. On the other side, paganism throughout history has been associated with the image and image-based communication. Hunt compares paganism in the ancient history of Egypt and Babylon with the text-based culture of the Hebrews. He then explains how the “Dark Ages” were a return to the ancient paganism at the same time that the literary culture was falling by the wayside. With the invention of the printing press and the spread of the Reformation, textual based thinking and communication became dominate and true religion was able to flourish. His concern now is that with the advent of television, movies and the Internet, we are becoming an image based culture and as such the danger of a return to paganism is very real. In using the image, paganism both ancient and modern involves a heavy emphasis on sex, violence and celebrity worship.

I have been a public school teacher for over 30 years and I have been able to see the decline in verbal skills during that entire time. More recently with the advent of the Internet, students’ ability to communicate their ideas and thoughts verbally is very low. My son, who teaches engineering in college, is frustrated by the fact that students are not able to communicate to him their understanding of the concepts they are supposed to be learning. If they could accurately communicate their ideas, he would know whether they understood the concepts or not and if not he could help them to correct their misunderstandings, but as it is, it is very difficult even to know what they understand.

This problem should be especially alarming to us as Christians because God has chosen to reveal Himself and the truth about Himself in words! If we cannot understand the words, we will not know who God is or what our condition is or how that condition can be rectified. The two components of the Great Commission involve proclamation of the gospel and teaching the Word of God. Although good teaching and even the proclamation of the gospel can be aided by illustrations and stories or can even be presented in dramatic form, it ultimately comes down to understanding the declarative propositions God has made of Himself.

Many of the recent innovations in worship style that have taken place in Evangelical churches in recent years have involved the reduction in word and the increase in image. Many churches have replaced the sermon with dramatic productions. Sermon outlines are now projected on lovely backgrounds using computer technology. Rather than encourage people to have a copy of the Word of God in their hands, many churches are providing key passages on the screen using that same display. While it is the same word of God, it is my opinion that it reduces the church member’s appreciation for and respect for the Word of God. Reading the key passage in context used to be encouraged, but now with the display of a short passage, the context is missing. When the display changes, the reader can’t go back and re-read the text to allow it to settle into his mind. All of this tends to minimize the importance of the Word and to reinforce the cultural view that image is everything.

Another recent innovation that has been brought to us by our technological society is the commodification of faith and especially music. By commodification I mean the fact that aspects of Christian worship, especially music has become a big business commodity. Most of the major Christian record labels are not owned by Christians any more. CD’s and being produced and mass marketed and they hyped over Christian radio in the same way that secular music is marketed. The result is that the consumer brings these newly developed tastes into the church and expects to be served the same faire. In many instances, there does not seem to be much thought given to the effect this market driven approach will have on the worship of God’s people. Who is asking the questions about what God has required in His word for His worship? Who is asking the questions as to what is being taught by the music (or the VBS materials, or the Sunday School youth magazines, etc.) that is being adopted for use in our churches? Do these increase our understanding of the word or do they cater to the image saturation of our culture?

In concluding his book, Dr. Hunt gives several suggestions for reducing the impact of the image in our lives. To his thoughts I add my own. Most of these involve time and attitude adjustments. With respect to time, we need to give less time to the image and more time to reading. This means spending less time in front of the television and computer screens and more time reading and conversing. Churches can help by re-elevating the importance of the word in worship and in teaching. We are going to have to do some re-educating of the people in our churches who have been raised in an image based society. They do not know how to think in the thought patterns that the printed word requires. We are going to have to help them learn how to do this. I think of how Wycliffe Bible Translators and other groups have worked tirelessly not only to translate the scriptures, but to bring literacy to the people. We are going to have to have our own version of this in our churches as we seek to raise the literacy level of our members.
May God help us not to just jump into the cultural river and “go with the flow”. God calls us to be a distinct people. We must use the technological innovations whether printing press, TV or computer for God’s glory, but we must set the agenda based on God’s Word and not let the appeal of the pagan image lead the way.


Jim said...

Thanks for this post. This is an interesting book that really seems to be unfinished - and so open to a lot of discussion.

I appreciate your point about the "small bits" of Scripture up on the screen during services. This is kind of a different point but certainly related. And your ideas at the end are interesting too.

I have taught youth for only a few years, but I have seen an incredible change in literacy - the ability to simply read a Scripture verse and understand it.

Here's my post:

gene thurston said...

technology is definitely referred to in the bible thst all should see the 2 witnesses at once. the question is when was the last time we attempted to win a soul face to face? do we owe those who ask an answer or a text? maybe both will work. gene thurston