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The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World by Arthur W. Hunt III (2003) – 4 out of 5 Stars

This is a difficult book to categorize because it is a many things – part history, part cultural critique, and part prophetic warning. Drawing on the thought of well-known names in media ecology such as Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Jack Goody,  influential Christians like Francis Schaeffer, David Wells, and Gene Edward Veith, and numerous voices on each era of history, Hunt paints an intriguing and insightful (though at times questionable) picture of the ongoing tension throughout history between the image and the word (the Word, in particular). He argues that when the image dominates a culture, a thoughtless paganism rules as the norm (either explicitly as in ancient Rome, or implicitly as in Medieval Rome) and the people open themselves up to tyranny. Biblical Christianity is a victim of the preference of images over the word, and the impact on the society at large is profound.

Using Hunt’s one-sentence summary of each chapter, the book can be outlined like this:

  1. Introduction – Although our communication technologies dazzle us, they also have the potential to unravel us, and to make us a bewitched people.
  2. Tables of Stone – There exists a long-standing and irreconcilable tension between the word and the image.
  3. When night fell – Pagan idolatry is biblicism’s chief competitor because one thrives in the absence of the written word and the other cannot exist without it.
  4. The Fiery Word – America was born out of a print-oriented culture.
  5. Something in the Air – As the industrial revolution transformed agricultural societies into urban ones, old social norms, habits, and customs, which traditionally held sway since the beginning of civilization, gave way to the rhythms of the concrete city.
  6. The Machines of Show Business – While middle-class America hardly ventures into the seedy section of the big city anymore, the red-light district has now been conveniently piped directly into the living room.
  7. The Image – The dominating components of today’s media content – sex, violence, and celebrity – conform to a pagan ideal.
  8. On Begin Postmodern – Postmodernism is a turning from rationality, and at the same time an embracing of spectacle.
  9. Formula for a Fuhrer – A dangerous soup is cooking.
  10. Conclusion – If we know what lies behind a particular medium, are able to point out how it works and why it sways people the way it does, then we can lessen its power over us.

There is much to appreciate in this book. This is a relatively new area of study for me personally, though many of the underlying assumptions and ideas find expression and thoughtful discussion in two other books I’ve recently read, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer and The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion by Tim Challies. Unique to this books is the thesis that the turn towards predominantly visual media is nothing short of a resurgence of ancient paganism.

The bulk of the book consists in painting a historical portrait of the conflict between the word and the image. The result is a fascinating (at times disturbing) tour through Western civilization from the perspective of an image-centered paganism and a word-centered Judaism/Christianity. Following this, he analyzes today’s culture in the same terms and the parallels are striking. For example, comparing the ancient polytheistic tendency to self-worship with our own, he writes:

A pagan, then, is someone who has engaged in a substitution process for the purpose of suppressing the true God. As a religious creature, one must have a worldview that somewhat rings true and provides a framework for being. Therefore, people create religious systems that allow for the pursuit of their own selfish desires. Ignoring God as revealed in nature’s design and inward conscience, they turn to experiential or bodily awareness, that which is found in the self. Meaning is then transferred to real or created objects in the world. Pagan happiness is found in honoring earthly objects through ritual.

When I said in Chapter One that visual media have the potential to paganize us, I simply meant that in a culture where it is difficult to escape the pervasiveness of images, the devotion that we put into the ritual of watching television, going to movies, attending rock concerts, or devouring the latest People magazine approaches the same level of devotion that the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans had for their deities. It meets the same need, and quite remarkably, the images are all too familiar. The cult of celebrity fills a religious hole dug by modernism. William Blake once said that all deities reside in the human breast (all but one, of course). So it was for the Greeks, and so it is for us. The machines of show business brought the gods back to life.

The ancient Greeks and Romans practiced their devotion to the gods within their particular cults. Cults were local in nature; the gods were woven into a pagan’s sense of place, work, or ancestry. Pagan piety has never been the same type of piety one expects or sees in Christian orthodoxy. The Oxford History of the Classical World tells us that pagan piety was not a matter of inward reflection or intense private communion with God. For example, no Greek would have ever written in a spiritual journal. The relationship between man and his gods was a casual one:

“It discouraged individualism, a preoccupation with inner states and the belief that intentions matter more than actions…Man was not for Greeks a sinful being in need of redemption; piety was not a matter of perpetual moral endeavor under the watchful eye of conscience. The gods excelled in strength and skill more often than in the quieter virtues. Indeed their behavior in myth was often scandalous: There might you see the gods in sundry shapes, committing heady riots, incest, rapes.”

The dominant tone of ritual was one of festivity rather than somber sanctimony. The gods delighted in seeing humans enjoying themselves. Therefore, singing, dancing, athletics, crude jokes, obscene gestures, and the occasional orgy accompanied the blood sacrifice. This spirit of festivity is captured in the New Testament when the apostle Paul describes the idolatry of the children of Israel during the wilderness wanderings: “Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play’” (1 Corinthians 10:7). The enormous amount of time, energy, and devotion that swirls around electronically-produced images constitutes a kind of ritual in itself. Images are pervasive, emotionally captivating, and…dare I say it? Sacred. They are not sacred because we associate the true and living God with them. Just the opposite. We associate ourselves with them. This is what it means to be pagan. Our images are sacred because we pour meaning into them and receive meaning back. We follow the sordid lives of celebrities both on and off the screen, bestow more honor on them than we do actual historical figures, develop “personal relationships” with them (even though we have never met them in person), buy their products as if they were relics, and make pilgrimages to their shrines (e.g., Elvis, Princess Di). To have the fortune to actually become a celebrity, says Neal Gabler in Life: The Movie, How Entertainment Conquered Reality, “is widely regarded as the most exalted state of human existence.” It is dying and going to heaven – that lucky someone’s inauguration to the modern version of Mount Olympus. To beat the insurmountable odds by becoming a “star” is to be cast into orbit with the other gods floating around in the celestial celebrity universe. Our association with electronic images helps us sustain a certain way of life and a certain way of looking at the world while we run away from God. We enjoy looking at ourselves. Our polytheism is not directed at stone idols or marble statues. Our polytheism resides in a house of mirrors.

Following a demonstration of the postmodern turn towards irrationality and spectacle, and how that plays itself out today, Hunt argues from parallels with Nazi Germany that this is nothing less than a recipe for tyranny and leaves us venerable to those who would exercise the will to power. With the safeguards of an active literacy and a biblical worldview removed, the eerie result could be best described as 1984 meets A Brave New World.

He concludes with a note of optimism, calling for action on an individual, family, church, and school level. His suggestions call for awareness and intentionality with regard to our use of technology, a resistance to the idols of our age, and an intentional effort to maintain the Word-centeredness of our worship and teaching. His final recommendation is to make media ecology a key component of our curriculum, forcing us to not only ask what technology can do for us, but what it does to us.

There are a few things about this book that I did not like. Most of the concerns relate to the fact that this is a popularization of a school of thought, and anytime that happens there is a necessary tendency towards reduction and little engagement with alternate views to argue the case. In addition, some of the historical portraits are painted with very broad brush strokes, and I’m curious whether the thesis would hold up under a more rigorous historical scrutiny.

In spite of these concerns, I recommend this book to all thinking Christians. It will force you to look at the world around you in different (and perhaps more biblical) terms, and will ask questions that you might not ever be forced to answer in our day. Also, if you’re new to the area of media ecology, I recommend taking up this book along with John Dyer’s book mentioned above.