What happens to the word in an image-obsessed culture? Westerners, and perhaps Americans in particular, have come to expect being bombarded by images: round-the-clock digital, cable, and network television; video arcade and computer games, music video channels, pay-per-view options, paparazzi photos in tabloids, full color billboards and bus stop ads – a virtually ceaseless visual stream.

But while many people today take this constant barrage of images for granted, one Christian author and professor of communications is concerned that the postmodern obsession with images is pushing words – and more importantly, the Word – out of place at the heart of civilized culture. And he says this process is, in effect, bringing on a postmodern "dark age" that resembles pagan societies of the past.

Dr. Arthur W. Hunt teaches communications at Geneva College in Pennsylvania and has been actively involved in Christian education for most of his adult life. And now he has written a book called "The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World" (Crossway Books, 2003), which asks some important questions about the effect visual culture is having on people's spiritual lives.

Hunt acknowledges that a number of other authors have explored the effects of visual culture on society, such as Marshall McLuen, Neal Postman, and Gene Veith. Hunt builds upon several of their ideas, adding his own Christian perspective. For instance, he considers Postman's idea that the invention of the printing press changed the way people thought and responded to ideas, developing in them a greater capacity for reason, sustained inquiry, and detached objectivity – qualities Hunt says postmodern generations exhibit less and less.

Just as the printing press changed people's way of processing information and ushered in the Age of Reason, Hunt says today's visual media are changing the postmodern mind – but not for the better. "If the printing press was capable of propelling Europe out of the Middle Ages and into a modern one, why in the world should we think it strange that our new electronic media, television, movies and now the Internet, are also capable of changing the information environment in such a way that it affects how we see the world?" he says.

Postmodern America: A Pagan Society?

In a culture where images are all-pervasive, the devotion people pour into the rituals of watching television and movies, using computer games and graphics, and attending rock concerts or other spectacles "approaches the same level of devotion that the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans had for their deities," the author says.

According to Hunt, the main components of pagan idolatry are sex, violence, and the cult of celebrity, or person worship. And in a society where broadcast media use sensationalistic images to compete for ratings, and political candidates – including former actors and professional wrestlers – compete for votes with television ads, the similarities are not difficult to spot.

"When you look at electronic media, you find sex, violence, and the cult of celebrity are dominant values. So I see a very strong parallel with paganism in what we see in the visual culture of our day," Hunt says.

The author believes the decline of morality and basic values in postmodern life is directly related to the decline in the valuation of the word. Hunt points out that as people lose their ability to grasp and grapple with religious ideas, then moral relativism, idolatry, and sensationalism take over.

"As we increasingly become more dumbed down, as we increasingly lose our ability of critical thinking, we become more susceptible to demagoguery or emotional appeals, which has always traditionally been a danger for any type of democracy," he says.

In the Beginning Was the Word

The author wants Christians in particular to realize that words are fundamental to faith. After all, he notes, God spoke creation into being, and Christ himself is referred to as "the Word made flesh." And Hunt believes the inspired Word of God in the Bible was not incidental.

"It was no mistake that God chose the medium of writing to make Himself known to the Jews. We inherited that same culture, that Hebrew culture, as Christianity flourished after the writing of the New Testament. I think it needs to be said that writing is the ideal medium to describe abstract ideas."

Hunt asserts that the Word is also intrinsically tied to America's heritage and tradition of faith. "America really is the birth child of the Protestant Reformation. When the Puritans came over to our country one of the first things they wanted to do after they got settled was establish schools of learning. These people valued the Word, capital w, and the written word, small letter w," he says.

But Hunt says today the Word is being supplanted in a hostile takeover by the image. He wants to call attention to what he calls a "direct assault upon the religion of the book, Christianity."

"It's vitally important for Christians for them to understand that our faith is dependent upon the written word. When that begins to become devalued, then that is a threat against our faith," he says.

© 2003 AgapePress