The Word and the Image

Believe it or not, there was a time when Facebook consisted only of a profile picture, basic personal interests, and some favorite quotes. You searched through others’ profiles by clicking on an interest and seeing who else shared those interests. It was fascinating in its simplicity, novelty, and serendipity. You never knew who you would discover. It felt a little raw and defiant. A quiet manifesto of ‘me’. Your life was literally an open book; it was a Face-book. Reading was a necessity. Words retained their primacy in the communicative act. Instead of scanning quickly through images in a news feed, you navigated static pages thick with candid detail. Who knew that we were at the brink not only of an online revolution—Web 2.0—but also a revolution in the preferred mode of thought exchange; a revolution confirmed by the fact that the most popular word of 2014 wasn’t a word at all. It was the heart emoji, ❤️.

Ambiguity

The image is an incredibly strong currency. The long-standing exchange rate, which, to my knowledge, has never fluctuated, is 1 picture = 1,000 words. That’s quite an upper hand. It helps explain why image-driven social media has exploded. And yet, the word still retains its value in terms of intelligibility, directness, and perspicuity. Even though a picture is worth a thousand words, the problem remains—which thousand words? Who’s to say which thousand words an image speaks? The danger of misunderstanding or distortion is latent in the ambiguity. Think of the Mona Lisa or If Not, Not. They are powerful images, but what are they saying?

Effect

Another difference lies in their effects. An image moves; a word grasps. Count Zinzendorf was deeply moved by Domenico Feti’s painting of the condemned Christ, Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), but he was grasped by the inscription, “This have I suffered for you; now what will you do for me?” Moses was arrested by the site of the burning bush but was commissioned by the words, “Go, speak to Pharaoh” (Exo. 3:2–4:23). Peter saw the vision of the vessel like a great sheet descending out of heaven, but needed the words, “Rise up, Peter; slay and eat. The things that God has cleansed, do not make common.” (Acts 10:11-15). Imagine the famous recruitment poster of World War 1 without the caption, “I want YOU for the U.S. Army”—you may think Uncle Sam is grounding you for breaking his window with an overthrown baseball or warning you for the last time to go to bed!

Another example is The Minimum Bible, an art project that attempts to reduce each book of the Bible to a single image. While visually stimulating and thought provoking—and I really do like a number of them—think about the rationale behind this project (read an interview with the artist here). The website says, “In an age of information overflow, sometimes we need to strip away the many words which obfuscate meaning and rely on simple symbolic shapes to introduce us to themes beyond the text.” Strip away the many words which obfuscate meaning? Quite the opposite. If you strip away the words, you strip away the meaning. Meaning resides in the text, not in images conjured up by the text. As helpful as they may be to convey an idea, the question is do these images (and can they) represent the whole? Or are they merely highly selective representations of a single idea in each book? Even if they do accurately and powerfully communicate an idea in the text, do these very images exchange the central thought of each book for another one? In other words, each image may be wholly true, but not the whole truth.

While the image is indeed powerful, the word, in its irreducibility and directness, is still needed to clarify and address.

Interaction

The image and the word also differ in the ways we interact with them. An image requires a viewer. In this relationship the image is passive (being viewed) while the viewer is active. A word requires a listener. In this relationship the word is active (being spoken), while the listener is passive.

Christ is both Image and Word

As it turns out, we don’t have to chose between these modes of communication when it comes to God. Christ is both the image of God and the Word of God.

In whom the god of this age has blinded the thoughts of the unbelievers that the illumination of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, might not shine on them. –2 C0r. 4:4

He is clothed with a garment dipped in blood; and His name is called the Word of God. –Rev. 19:13

Image of God

As the image of God, Christ is the expression of God’s being in all His attributes and virtues. As the only begotten Son, He is the perfect, whole, and stable image of God. He is the Father’s spitting image, so exact that he who has seen the Son has seen the Father (John 14:9). We need to actively behold Him, face to face, in our spirit so that we are transformed into the same image.

But we all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit. –2 C0r. 3:18

Word of God

As the Word of God, Christ is the definition, explanation, and expression of God. As the Greek of John 1:18 indicates, the Son is the exegesis (ἐξηγέομαι) of the Father. Christ is not only “the one object of exegesis, [but] also it’s subject… His whole life is exegesis ‘in act’.”[1] There is a beautiful coordination and a mutual reciprocity in the Trinity related to speaking—the Father speaks in the Son (Heb. 1:2), the Son explains the Father, and the Spirit is the word spoken (John 6:63; Eph. 6:17).

This trinitarian speech-event has been recorded once for all in the pages of the Bible. Rather than focusing on attempts to conquer a historical text through analysis, exegesis, and systematization, we must above all humble ourselves before the word. We must open our being to be addressed by a present, living, personal Word, “holding ourselves free for it as for a message that we have never heard before.”[2] The Psalmist said, “I will lift up my hand to Your commandments, which I love” (Psa. 119:48), which is an indication “that we receive it warmly and gladly and that we say Amen to it.”[3] In this way, just as we are transformed into the image of the Son, we ourselves become extensions of the Word—living letters of Christ to be known and read by all men.

Since you are being manifested that you are a letter of Christ ministered by us, inscribed not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tablets of stone but in tablets of hearts of flesh. –2 Cor. 3:3

What’s amazing is that these two profound revelations (our participation in Christ as the image and the word) come in the same chapter of the Bible, 2 Corinthians 3. In addition, both experiences fully involve all three of the divine Trinity. In the letter metaphor, we are letters of Christ, inscribed with the Spirit of the living God. In the image metaphor, we behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and experience a transformation which proceeds from the Lord Spirit.

TLDR

The world is a very communicative place. Lewis H. Lapham observed that, “every age is an age of information… the means of communication are as restless as the movement of the sea, as numberless as the expressions that drift across the surface of the human face.”[4] Even the physical universe speaks, “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night tells out knowledge” (Psa. 19:2). The world is a swift-flowing data-stream of images and words, springing from a multitude of diverse fountainheads, from Instagram to Random House. There is a danger however that we become ephemerons, caught up in a whirlwind of communication—texting, snapping, scanning, scrolling—without substance or meaning. “As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.”[5] We have a world of much richer, more meaningful, and longer lasting content available to us in the all-inclusive Christ, who is the image and Word of God. Let us therefore, as the words of an old hymn say, “Take time to behold Him… and feed on His Word”, realizing that we are what we eat and we become what we behold.


 

1. Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible, p. 51
2. Karl Barth, Witness to the Word: A Commentary on John 1, p. 9
3. Witness Lee, Recovery Version, Psalm 119:48, note 1
4. Lewis H. Lapham, “Word Order.” Lapham’s Quarterly, 5.2 (2012): 18
5. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, p. 34
6. The original hymn is “Take time to be holy” by William Dunn Longstaff, 1882. In his notes on 2 Corinthians 3, Henry A. Ironside recalls that, “Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer almost always interrupts when this hymn is given out, and says, “Please let me change that first line; let us sing it, ‘Take time to behold Him.'”

2 thoughts on “The Word and the Image

    • Yes. That was an interesting discovery! It’s more common than most people probably think. Another famous one changed is Crown Him with Many Crowns. The line originally was “Fruit of the mystic rose” a very Catholic reference to Mary. It was changed by Protestants to “Fruit of the mystic tree.” A popular hymn today “The King of love my shepherd is” has been tinkered with quite heavily by Reformed churches to make the language less archaic.

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