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Volume 7, Issue 3: Non Est

Prison House of Images

Douglas Jones

By means of billboards and buildings and trucks and more, freeways force an unending flood of images down into one's soul. Some billboards actually rotate and glitter. And yet closing one's eyes is frowned upon by the Highway Patrol. I soon realized that the glut of freeway images was just the beginning. I couldn't walk into a shopping mall without noticing that every storefront was designed to resemble a television screen, and some stores were even loaded with actual televisions for customers to watch during those depressing lulls between shirt selections. At least the modern masses will never have to face the dire deprivation of listening to music without the aid of flashy colors. And who could really understand television "news" without those helpful pictures up over the newscaster's shoulder? Going to most schoolrooms is no escape, desperate as their walls and teachers are to mimic the magnificence of a buzzing video arcade. And even most libraries turned coat long ago by allowing videos to outmuscle books for shelf space. Like an unending house of mirrors, images face us at every feverish turnon newspapers, magazines, computers, and menus, at work, home, city hall, church, restaurants, bookstores, universities, and animal fairs. It's like a prison-house of pictures. Who will free us from the culture of this death!

Now don't misunderstand this heavy breathing. Images have their important place. I have some paintings on my walls and enjoy thoughtful photography and even know how pictures can help in the early steps of learning some subjects. Our worry should be with a culture obsessed with images at every turn a culture that hates the written word and cannot fathom the utter mysteries, the beguiling magic, and silencing beauty of the written word. Of course, this is no new observation. But we need to remind ourselves of it every so often to keep from falling into the habits of our wheezing culture. We'd surely notice a culture obsessed with little armpits; a people always discussing and drawing little armpits would be very odd and unbalanced. My point is that a culture that can do little without the aid of images, forcing them into every realm, corner, and seam doesn't differ much from a culture consumed with armpit updates.
More importantly, this obsession with images isn't just an innocent technological spasm of this century. Pictures have been prominent in many ancient cultures long before big screen TV's were in stock. Any culture's obsession with images reveals its deep seated opposition to biblical faith -- faith rightfully and unashamedly obsessed or biased toward the written and spoken word.
From Genesis to Revelation, we read of an ongoing emphasis on the use of word-symbols, spoken and written. First, God created the world by speaking words. He communicated with Adam by means of words and gave him the task of naming, attaching word symbols, to the animals. Man rebelled against God through a distortion of spoken commands, and soon God introduced linguistic confusion, babble, in order to rein in the power of man. God called, commanded, and promised Abraham by words and later revealed Himself more fully by inscribing words on tablets. God commanded His people to meditate on these words and meanings, reading, hearing, repeating them regularly.
Most interestingly, He prohibited His people to worship or think about Him with images, siding instead with words, and forbade them to use His name vainly. His words in covenantal promises and commands stood as the highest criterion of truth for the people, and God prohibited anyone from tampering with His words. And God continued to reveal Himself through the mouths of prophets, overwhelmingly in prose and poetry, heartfelt testimonies exhorting us again and again to the glories of God's written word. In His law and wisdom literature, God gave us countless statutes for controlling our use of words with one another, cursing word abusers. When the people rebelled and loved the image-idols of God's enemies more than God, He exiled them into image cultures, though promising that in the future He would write His words, His law, upon their hearts.
As the high point of His revelation, God sent His Son, the Word of God, who promised us that God's Word is eternal and the standard by which even our idle words will be judged. Through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, He reversed the confusion of Babel and later spoke judgment through unknown tongues to rebels. He gave His Church teachers and preachers and commanded them to take His word to all the corners of the globe. And He promised that on the Last Day, everyone will speak words confessing that Christ is Lord. On top of all this, He recorded all this truth not with insufficient images or childish icons but in Scripture, the written text.
In the continuing battle between the friends and enemies of God, we shouldn't be surpised or deceived by the ploys of a rebellious image culture. Its obsession with images and its accompanying denigration of words and texts is just one part of the ongoing war against the culture of the word. Its hatred of God forces it to try to efface anything that dares to bring Him mind. But they won't win. God's words cannot return void.

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