Surviving the Visual Tsunami: A response to Mark Galli

Yesterday the arresting question, “Can we survive the visual tsunami?” showed up in my Twitter feed. The tinge of apocalyptic concern in the title of Mark Galli’s meditation for Christianity Today got my attention.

Tsunami sounds bad. But for me, a designer who loves the arts, visual sounds good.

I respect Mark Galli tremendously and I love CT (there are three issues stacked in a basket beside my couch right now), so I was intrigued. Are images really a looming, unstoppable force that is a spiritual threat?

Galli considers the implications of the second commandment, which he suggests may be read not only as a prohibition against the worship of images, but more sweepingly as a prohibition against all images. “One could make a case,” Galli writes, “such a case has, in fact, been made by Jacques Ellul, among others, that the prohibition against images has a logic of its own apart from idol worship.”

It’s been awhile since I read Ellul. I pull The Humiliation of the Word off the bookshelf. Some of the pages are still turned down; notes in pencil clutter the margins. His argument is sometimes powerful; sometimes worrisome. According to Ellul, God’s self expression is always through the word. Only the word is revelatory. Only the word conveys Truth. Ellul argues that the image imposes itself on us in a way that the word doesn’t, that the image is coercive, while the word grants us freedom to respond in dialogue. (Any one of us can immediately imagine examples to the contrary—think for instance, of so much combative political rhetoric hurled to shut down dialogue.) Further, the word is mysterious, while “the image is never mysterious.” The word is paradoxical, while the image is “non paradoxical.”

If this summation strikes you as a bit black and white, well, Ellul draws the contrast between word and image as starkly as possible. The strength of his rhetoric drives his point home, but does he go too far?

I think he does.

Ellul makes the provocative charge, “the habit of living in this image-oriented world leads me to give up dialectical thought and criticism.”

Echoing this sentiment, Galli expresses his primary concern with images this way: “images usually leave me passive in the experience they engender—images just come at me and don’t require much of me but to receive them. The word, however, requires a mental response; I have to interact with the word to make sense of it.” A bit further on he puts this point somewhat more succinctly: “a steady diet of images seduces me to stop thinking.

Even if I grant that we mentally process images differently from the way we process words, is it really true that images leave us passive, as both Ellul and Galli suggest?

Is it true that images seduce us to stop thinking?

I don’t think so. Images have their own language and syntax. It may not “require much” of us to receive an image on the surface level, but that doesn’t mean that the image can or should only be read that way.

Many images are multi-faceted. Meaning unfolds in the wake of contemplation, sustained consideration and, sometimes, study. That’s certainly been true of my experience of looking at and attempting to understand art. Thinking critically about images is challenging, so challenging, in fact, that it may be one reason there is so little thoughtful Christian art criticism. Any art historian can testify to the ambiguity inherent in most images. Interpretation, whether of a Byzantine mosaic, a Duchamp sculpture, a Bergman film, or of the Bible, is always a rigorous enterprise.

Word and image—both demand critical thought for meaningful interpretation.

Early Christians took the power of images to reveal theological truth seriously. Images can start a conversation just as surely as words can. Consider, for instance, the illustrated edition of the homilies of Gregory Nazianzus commissioned by the Patriarch Photios as a gift for the emperor Basil in the ninth-century and now housed in the Louvre. Leslie Brubaker makes a strong case that in this manuscript produced for a literate and urbane audience—the imperial family—the imagery is not primarily illustrative, but is exegetical, drawing out the meaning of Gregory’s sermons by introducing imagery that invites the reader to make connections that could not be elicited from the text alone. The manuscript is a product of the social and political currents coursing through Constantinople after the orthodox victory over iconoclasm; but it is also, in Brubaker’s view, a personal statement from the patriarch to the emperor. These are images that invite interpretation, critical thinking and meaningful dialogue.

Modern images have just as much potential to inspire conversation and critical thinking as do ninth-century Byzantine illustrations. After I saw the Damian Hirst retrospective at the Tate, it was on my mind for weeks. Ditto a Giocometti show at the Pera Gallery. Ditto Anish Kapoor at Sakip Sabanci.

If time and attention are given to images, then they inspire thought, not inhibit it.

I empathize with the reality that a lot of things today pull us away from “from reading that makes demands” on us. I love to read and have too little time to delve into great works. But blaming images for our distraction is to make the visual a scapegoat, a position that only serves to reinforce prejudice against images and art. Let’s not breathe life into iconoclastic tendencies that haunt many Protestants, especially evangelicals.

Galli notes that Christian faith is word-centric, hence Paul’s focus on preaching the word as the means of gospel proclamation. But looking to John we find a witness that embraces all the senses, including sight: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1)

In our enthusiasm for the word, let’s not disparage the image.

We don’t need fewer images, we need more meaningful ones.

We don’t need fewer images, we need to be more discerning about the ones we give our attention and our time.

When I scroll through my Instagram feed I may not be thinking critically, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking. A memory elicited by a snapshot of a friend, inspiration spawned by a beautiful photograph, social concern awakened by a post, these are meaningful thoughts, even if they don’t take the sort of critical attention that reading Kierkegaard or John Stott demands.

Ellul laments “a civilization of images.” Galli complains that, “We are so inundated by images that we have no critical distance—they are the ocean we swim in.”

While it’s true that these days our attention is fragmented by a steady stream of digital content, that content is word as often as it is image. We’re as distracted by text today as we are by images. Why skewer the image?

A steady stream of anything will get in the way of reflection and critical thinking. I might say, for instance, that a steady diet of romance novels seduces me to stop thinking, or a steady diet of talk radio induces me to stop thinking; but the problem wouldn’t be with novels or radio—the problem wouldn’t be with words—it would lay in a surfeit of vacuous content. The problem here seems to be not with images, but with a steady stream of the wrong kinds of images.

Perhaps our inability to think critically in response to images is a problem with us, not with the images themselves.

Perhaps what we need is more focus, more discernment, more self-control, not less images. Perhaps we need to exercise the discipline to pause and step out of the stream long enough to create mental space for reflection. Perhaps we need to be willing to gaze at images that make us uncomfortable because they challenge us to think critically about the world we live in. Perhaps we need to give more sustained focus to images that are meaningful.

Galli observes: “Images help me feel quickly and with relative ease.” Is conjuring up emotion all images are good for? The idea that images primarily inspire feeling has a healthy dose of Romanticism in it, but it’s unnecessarily reductive.

Of course some images inspire emotion—but not all do. Images function in a number of ways. They may be symbolic, narrative, didactic, historical, decorative, exegetical, or polemic. An infographic is different in kind from a photo of the day my daughter was born, and a National Geographic photo is different from a Picasso painting. But all of these images communicate in important ways—infographics help me grasp complex information quickly, family photos help me remember (with loads of feeling!) moments I might have forgotten, photojournalism puts me in touch with parts of the world I couldn’t otherwise experience, and Picasso’s paintings challenge my perspective, prompting me to think in new dimensions. These images may inspire emotion, but they do a lot more besides.

Ellul casts the critical net as wide as possible, taking down not just still images like painting and photography, but also film and television. I can’t help but wonder what sort of world Ellul envisions us living in—a visual desert? One stripped clean of all imagery apart from the natural world. It seems an extreme puritanical vision too rigorous to put into practice. Is this really what the God who dictated the fittings of the temple down to the positioning of the angel wings over the ark had in mind?

Galli concludes his meditation by expressing his gratefulness “for the ubiquity of grace, which covers a multitude of sins, including those that sabotage me without me even being aware of it.” He seems to suggest the tsunami of images is not only seductive, but sin inducing in the way it causes us to transgress the letter of the law. Ellul, like Galli, sees sin lurking behind sight—specifically the sin of covetousness. But words can be distorted too—words can reveal or they can deceive. Words can communicate truth or lies. Any good thing that God created can be corrupted; but we should never reject the good in an effort to guard against temptation. That’s legalism.

During Lent, I always gravitate to the gospels. I like to spend the season focusing on the life of Jesus—listening again to what he said, watching how he interacted with people along the way, and looking for the signs of the kingdom he said was coming. One of the things Jesus often did was give sight to the blind.

If Jesus opened eyes, then we shouldn’t be hesitant about opening ours. Ultimately, what we’re looking to see is His glory.


The art at the top of the post is a bit of a painting by a good friend, Laurel Eccles.