Word and Image

I was speaking with a couple of friends and one mentioned a book he was reading that spoke of the Image centered church of the Middle Ages and the Word centered church emerging from the Reformation.  The church of the Middle Ages employed Image by reason of societal illiteracy and its own theological presuppositions and institutional needs.  The church of the Reformation changed its theological presuppositions and institutional philosophy and Image gave way to Word.  The prevailing of the Word over Image has done much to shape the western world, but today, a media saturated culture is promoting Image over Word.

In the course of this conversation I said that it will be interesting to see what wins out – Word or Image.  But I think that verdict is in – Image is eclipsing Word.  This same friend told me of a theological discussion he was having with his nephew.  My friend recommended a book to his nephew and his nephew wanted nothing to do with any printed media.  He wanted his uncle to direct him to Youtube or maybe something on Facebook.  He didn’t know how to relate to Word, Image dominated his learning processes.

Image is eclipsing Word.

Please note, this young man wasn’t disposed against truth, but inclined toward truth conveyed by Image.  This calls for a few comments and questions – and please add your own.

  • The church in utilizing Image, should not change its theological presuppositions and minimize Word.
  • To what extent should church employ Image in service of Truth?
  • Is the media redefining the essence of the church or just the methodology of the church?
  • When does Image become image – aesthetics devoid of content?  When does Image become image – Image for appearance’s sake?
  • Image is not to supplant Word, both should be employed in service of Truth.
  • Is Image the same as Word in a different form?  Do Image and Word convey the same content?
  • The church’s greatest mistake will be to understand that the emphasis on Image is to be translated mainly into media.
  • The church’s greatest opportunity in this milieu is not creating cool graphics and relevant film.  The church’s greatest opportunity and challenge is creating true Image – the Image of Christ.  We are being conformed to Image of Christ – Image is crucial!  As the saints are transformed into Image, Image joined with Word and alongside Word can be a formidable apologetic.
  • Community should be Image.
11 replies
  1. Josh Olson
    Josh Olson says:

    The word “Image” (that’s kind of funny) is used over 100 times in Scripture.

    “Let Us make man in Our image…”
    “You shall not make for yourself any graven image…”
    “He is the image of the invisible God…” and ” “the express image…”

    I think there is a proper use and an improper one.

    Wasn’t the church in the Middle-Ages “Image-centered” largely because the people were non-literate, so they used “Image” to tell the story?

    Yes, the shift to holding Word over image has done much good…but there also seems to be the sentiment that “True Christians read the Word of God, and so many don’t have their own language, so we must write down their language and teach the non-literate to read as well. How else can they be healthy Christians?” That kind of thinking can severely limit outreach and discipleship in at least two ways:

    1)It handicaps the Body of Christ
    (thinking, “Well, I’m not a linguist. There is no way I can write down a language, write it out and teach a non-literate people to read and write. Plus, that would take 20-30 years! I’ll leave that for the One holding Master’s degrees, etc. They are the REAL servants of Christ. I’ll just sit here on the sideline and be a consumer and a spectator…and pray for those dear, lost souls.”)

    2)It abandons the Lost
    If the only way they can be saved is by helping them to read and write the written word, the sentiment may be that the West is forcing upon them something that is not as highly valued in their own eyes.

    There is a downward side to exalting one above the other…but I see great harmony when there is a balance. None greater than the Word becoming flesh and dwelling with us.

    Just some of my thoughts.
    Thanks, Tim.

  2. Miles DeBenedictis
    Miles DeBenedictis says:


    Great post and good questions!

    I’ve talked much with my guys at CCEsco about this very topic. Imaging and storying theology are, I believe, going to be important mediums for the truth in 21st century Western Culture.

    Modernity had a highly logos-centric focus, the arts employ far more pathos and ethos; the three together are important. We [westerners] have been very focused words and propositions, I don’t think that will completely go away, and it shouldn’t. But in addition to it I think we’ll see a continued move toward iconography and narrative to convey truth. Many of your above points are spot on.

    One of the interesting things I’ve observed in considering this topic is that image and narrative are [generally] easier for people to take with them than propositional statements. So finding good/effective ways to present propositional truth in easy to assimilate pictures and/or stories is very effective.

    Still contemplating this one… Thanks for the post.

  3. Greg Danskin
    Greg Danskin says:

    Well this is a small topic!

    As in all communication, what is received is of primary importance. The audience is the critical study, and as we have seen in our own visually saturated culture, there are better agencies of this than others. This is why car commercials are so loud, because the audience is weary of seeing yet another awesome F150 in slo-mo, so they need to be fully informed of the great deals with a robust voice from the living room to the kitchen!

    So how will we use the tools at our disposal? In fact, they have never really been completely one without the other. Is the visual representation of an idea more powerful (a picture is worth…) than the written?

    Ethan is writing an essay, proposing that a book leads to a richer experience than a movie, based on the notion that the reader is allowed to fully utilize his own imagination as directed by the writer’s ability, as opposed to being constrained by the director’s interpretation.

    So in reading scripture, there may be a more direct connection with the understanding brought by the Holy Spirit to the disciple, than a visual interpretation. And when filtered through language/dialect, it seems to me the meaning will hit closer to home. Image in culture may have a similar affect, in that cultural idioms may be present to convey more accurately and idea than foreign imagery can. I am always struck by the need in our culture to often explain a passage of scripture by ‘bringing’ the listeners back to the culture of the time of its writing. And so we form a ‘picture’ in the minds of our audience.

    And I guess that leads to the point that any extra-bilical commentary is by nature interpretation, whether Image or Word. The stained glass images are interpretations, weighted down with more cultural influence than technical constraint.

    Jesus showed how the Master describes Heaven, in Word-pictures.

    Oh, and let’s not forget music.

    This is indeed a small topic! (picture light-hearted sarcasm here)

    • Tim Brown
      Tim Brown says:

      Hi, Greg – thanks for your response. The more I think about Word and Image, the Image I am thinking of doesn’t have to do with word-pictures or story-telling or freer imaginations so that the hearer can ‘see with his ears.’ I am not thinking of a left brain, right brain interface. I am thinking of the Image of Christ incarnated in His Body, the Church. We can fill our churches and sermons with images and still not achieve Image. I think, too, that our sermons can present Image. Anyway, thinking out loud again.

        • Tim Brown
          Tim Brown says:

          Yes, I think that before any other consideration of what Image/image might be, this would take priority. Maybe we can ask the question, “What Image is the Lord seeking to develop and portray?” Certainly, the Image of Christ – and how is the Image of Christ manifested today? And I am not thinking of individual as Image, but community as Image.

          I just saw the movie ‘Courageous’. It was composed of many images, and yet the Image of Christ in community emerged. The tender/firm/courageous Father heart of God as developed in and manifested through believers was clearly seen. Through the many images, an Image emerged of what Christ in the flesh looks like. The Image isn’t what is seen by the eyes, but apprehended by the soul. I think this can happen thru sermons, too, where the people hear the Word, and leave with having an Image apprehended by the soul.

          Anyway, a provocative subject to think about. Thanks for the mind food.

  4. Kellen Criswell
    Kellen Criswell says:

    I, like you guys, think there is a good way to use and a true way to abuse the use of art and images in the body of Christ. So it is with all amoral things. I think there is a good way to be balanced on this. We (Refuge) are an extremely Word focused church. We are finishing a verse by verse study through Galatians this week, Lord willing. But we are also a very art conscious church. Partly this is because the two founding pastors (myself included) are both musicians. Part of it is also that we have TONS of musicians and artists of different kinds at our church. What I’ve found in our circle of Word-driven churches is that artists tend to get left out and feel like there’s no place for them to serve with their God-given abilities, and they often see no way to connect their passions to worship, body ministry, or outreach. I think this is a tragedy. If we look around at our universe it should be clear that God is the greatest artist ever, and that the images He created are intended to be teaching tools that inspire worship and belief as we understand them (Ps. 19 anyone?). So we encourage our artists to paint, make short films, do creative writing, photography and whatever else to the glory of God. We encourage them to run everything they do thru the filter of our core values of Glorifying God, Strengthening Believers, and Reaching the lost. We’ve found that while the Word is the main thing because it’s what brings the power of God for salvation, the use of art in all it’s forms can absolutely be used to worship God, inspire believers, and reach the lost. One of the projects some of our artists are working on now is creating a new blog called The Incarnate that will be our main medium for using art to accomplish our core values. Check it out in the future and let me know what you guys think. -Kellen

  5. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks for this, Kellen. I’m just thinking out loud here. You use the phrase, ‘the use of art in all its forms…’ I think I know what you mean. Is art a synonym for Image? Would you be able to say, ‘We use the Word in all its forms…’? When we say Word, we mean ‘Word of God’. Do we mean ‘Image of God’ when we use the word Image? Does Image have a multiplicity and does Word have a singularity? Are there many Images and one Word? Abstract, I know. Just thinking out loud.

  6. Trip Kimball
    Trip Kimball says:

    I’m a little late to the dance, but reviewing all the comments along with the original post— it seems like the issue boils down to example, or what is see-able or know-able in a real life context.
    Not to be too simplistic, but that seems to be what Jesus indicates in his new commandment (Jn 13:34-35) and that the early church was known for…the word of truth was lived out in such a way that it changed the world.

    I’m convinced we don’t need to sacrifice ministry in/with the Word to effect change within our present culture. The question is “how” do we do this in a way that it will be received (“I don’t want to read…”)? I remember a balding guy with a KJV Bible surrounded by a bunch of hippies who were “into it”. We can’t go back 40+ years (thankfully) or try to keep things “the way they were”, but we do need vision to see how to go forward in a relevant way.

    How does the Word penetrate an image-driven culture and mind set?

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      You’re definitely right an the bible remains relevant in every generation.

      Here’s the question I’ve been thinking about of late. The churches and pastors represented on this blog are bible-centered, exposition based fellowships. So, does the nature of what we do within our churches attract a type of person who is more on the highly literate end of our societal spectrum? If so, are there other/better ways (in addition to what we currently do) to reach more people who may be beyond our reach based upon how we do things.

      Input from people like yourself (i.e. former cross-cultural missionaries) would likely be helpful.

  7. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Hi, Miles – I wouldn’t say that any of the people I serve are illiterate, but I am always surprised by how many don’t really read much at all. They are not book people. Newspapers and magazines – to some extent. But TV, radio, and internet dominates the way info comes to them, which means it is more condensed sound bytes than extended reasoning or even rich story lines.

    So, why do these types show up at our Bible-centered, exposition focused fellowships?
    1. Duty
    2. Habit
    3. Where else?
    4. Maybe some of us do a good job of helping them see with their ears.

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