No Graven Images

  A few years ago, Neil Postman wrote a devastating critique of television called "Amusing Ourselves to Death." The book was welcomed by critics and reviewed in all the right magazines, but not once did we learn where Postman got his ideas. It turns out he got them from the Bible. Postman's thesis is that different types of media encourage different ways of thinking. The printed word requires sustained attention, logical analysis, and an active imagination. But television, with its fast-moving images, encourages a short attention span, disjointed thinking, and purely emotional responses. The medium of communication actually helps shape the way people think. Postman says he first discovered this connection in the Bible. As a young man, he read the Ten Commandments and was struck by the words: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image." Postman says he realized that the idea of a universal deity cannot be expressed in images but only in words. As he writes, "The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking." This is the God Christians worship today--a God known principally through His Word. Many religions have a scripture, of course. Yet most teach that the way to contact the divine is through mystical visions, emotional experiences, or Eastern-style meditation. Judaic Christianity alone insists on the primacy of language. Gene Edward Veith, in "Reading Between the Lines," explains why: The heart of our religion is a relationship with God-- and relationships thrive on communication. We cannot know people intimately merely by being in their presence," Veith says. "It takes conversation to share thoughts and personalities." Christians are meant to have an ongoing conversation with God. We address Him in the language of prayer, and He addresses us in the language of Scripture. Historically, this emphasis on the Word has had a deep impact on Western culture. In earlier societies, reading was confined to an elite. It was the Reformation that first aimed at universal literacy, so that the Bible could be put into the hands of every believer. Today missionaries are still doing the same thing. In non- literate societies, they reduce the native language to writing and teach the people to read the Bible. And from there they can go on to read anything. They can read about sanitation, health care, democracy--things that often transform their culture, much as the Reformation transformed Western culture. Yet here in the West we are in danger of coming full circle: The visual media created by modern science may ultimately undermine literacy, transforming us back into an image-based culture. If that happens, will only an elite be taught to read? Will biblical faith still flourish? In the Old Testament, God's people were tempted by graven images. Today the images are graven by electrons on cathode ray tubes. Christians need to learn when to flip the switch--in order to remain true to our historical reputation as the "people of the book."


Chuck Colson


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