The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Monday, November 06, 2006

"Toward a Visual Rhetoric of the Gospel"

This article referenced above appears in the Fall 2006 Issues In Christian Education vol. 40 #2, published by Concordia University, Seward Nebraska. The authors, Paul Berkbigler and Bruce Creed, are professors there, of art and communication, respectively. You can read the article as a PDF by clicking on the title above.

The authors ask some good questions, and offer some stimulating ideas.

I have often wrestled with the pull between wanting to add more visual vocabulary to my teaching and preaching, and wanting to preserve the art of oral/aural preaching. Sometimes I manage, in an oral sermon, to dip into the visual stream.

For example, in talking about 1 Peter 5:6-9, I might say,
"What does it mean, in a movie, when the characters are suddenly shown inside of two circles, like this?" (put two O hands together) "It's the view through binoculars, right? What is the filmmaker saying with that visual cliche? What does it mean?" (It means someone is watching them, is the response I hope to hear.)

"What if it's one circle--and it has crosshairs? Does filming that way give a different message?" (A sniper is watching them, maybe going to shoot one of them.)

Then I go on to contrast "He [God] cares for you" and "the devil is prowling... looking for someone to devour." I say that God is watching us (binocular hands) but the Devil is hunting us (rifle posture, peering through scope).

Dopey little example. Maybe I'll do it one of these days.

Here's my favorite quote from the article (but the emphasis is mine, not the authors'):
The development and introduction of technology has not only made us aware of the different ways in which we process words, but it also has pointed out the myriad ways in which we now process images. Film and television celebrate disunion between idea and image often purely to shock us and to get our attention. This break in relation is rarely repaired for the sake of the information still to come; it is often either sidestepped or completely disregarded as the contents of the message are delivered. This technique is gradually being applied to all generations. For example, advertising that uses songs of the 1960s to sell any product regardless of its relation to songs of the Baby Boomers.

Even so, Boomers and other generations may not always be challenged by the notion that the contents of the Gospel and the contents of their lives are directly correlated. For Christ to have incorporated into His parables the simple image of drinking from a well shows us the relationship between our lives and His Gospel message. For many young people, however, even these parables sometimes do not resonate in their lives. There seems to be disunion between image and meaning because of the
proliferation of uncorrelated images in advertising, film and other texts that they see daily. These young readers then interact with technology and media in which images have been used intentionally often without the expectation or realization that the images have been manipulated with purpose. Worship can bridge this gap between the careful and careless use of images by providing what we have earlier referred to as graphic resonance. The caution for users of technology in worship is to always remember that there is a need for resonance between images and words.

Christians need to be so careful about this. Resist the fad. The image appeals, but if it doesn't contribute to the message, it worsens the signal-to-noise ratio. I've blogged before about McLuhan; his ideas continue to fascinate me. I'm glad other Christian thinkers are thinking about these things too.


Blogger solarblogger said...

Great illustration. If you don't preach it, you can use the idea for your bulletin cover.

That article was also a better discussion of the issue than many I have read that uncritically promote whatever is perceived as cutting edge. I like the fact that McLuhan was cited. (Have you worked with his quadrant idea?) But while I think the authors offer wonderful tips on how to use visual language more effectively, we should recognize that if we don't on occasion challenge the dominance of the visual in our culture, we may not have an answer to St. Paul's question, "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?" (1 Cor 12:17).

Nov 7, 2006, 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger Kelly Klages said...

Traditional, liturgical churches do tend to be extremely visual places. In fact, practical sensory overload can happen in some places. Goodness knows that as an artist, I'm all about the visual. But with all the visuals happening (stained glass, altar / pulpit / paraments, vestments, etc.),do sermons have to be visual, too?

Nov 8, 2006, 1:34:00 AM  
Blogger Joe Fremer said...

Thank you both for your comments.

solar, I confess that I haven't gotten around to reading much McLuhan directly, knowing about his work from secondary sources. I've put it off because I know, from what little I have read, that my head will be spinning for weeks and I will be incomprehensible in my giddiness. So I'm going to do it over some vacation time.

Kelly, it's great to hear from you again. And you are absolutely right, although sad to say, the churches where I serve are pretty minimally furnished. The photo that forms the basis for our web site's chancel tour pretty much shows what I mean. We count ourselves fortunate to have a building at all.

Do sermons have to be visual? No. Are they? Yes. By that I mean, we do not gather around a radio and listen to them; they are delivered by a flesh-and-blood man upon whom we can look, while we listen. He communicates not only orally, but also visually: with facial expression, gestures (or the lack thereof), movement (or lack thereof), gaze direction, fiddling with his watch, or whipping his reading glasses off at important points--some of it is noise and some is signal. The ratio of verbal to visual may vary, but unless you are listening to a podcast, or listening with eyes closed, some visual is there.

Although I like to hold high language standards in the service and the sermon, I wonder if the use of a deliberate, well-thought out visual aid might be a good thing on a more regular basis than what I have been doing. But it should be deliberate, intentional, and appropriate (what the authors of the article refer to as "resonance")--it it should be kept under control so as not to upstage the spoken word.

Nov 8, 2006, 2:39:00 PM  
Blogger Kelly Klages said...

At what point does a pastor whip his reading glasses off? :o)

Nov 8, 2006, 10:45:00 PM  

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