• Brian Godawa

Preaching Vs. Art | The Word and The Image



Editor's Note: This post is the first installment in a series entitled "The Word and The Image." Brian serves as an advisory board member at Stage & Story.

 

Many Christian artists find themselves in an unfair predicament in their churches. Too many pastors and theologians simply do not appreciate just how valuable the imagination is to God. These well-meaning Christian leaders tend to think that words are superior to images, that the “Word” is linked more with abstract theology and the word on the page than with the concrete beauty of sensate artforms. They could not be more unbiblical, but it causes a rift of misunderstanding that we artists must seek to overcome. So, here is my attempt to try to help provide artists with a bit of biblical foundation for the claim that God values the concrete image just as much as he does the abstract word.


Signs and Wonders


Roughly 20 percent of the Bible is rational propositional truth and laws, while 80 percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative—that is, image. The thousands of miracles that God performed for his people were not abstract propositions, but sensate visual signs (images) intended to elicit faith and trust in their Creator.


It is no coincidence that the phrase “signs and wonders” is used by biblical writers. A “sign” is a visual experiential symbol pointing to truth or proving a proposition (Heb 2:4).[1] So one of God’s most dramatic means of persuasion recorded in the Bible is through the signs or images of miraculous wonders.[2]


Dreams and Visions


And then there are dreams and visions—God’s form of television and movies: Joseph’s dreams of fat and skinny cows (Gen 41), Ezekiel’s spinning wheels (Ezek 1) and valley of dry bones (Ezek 37), Nebuchadnezzar’s nightmare statue (Dan 2), as well as other visions given to key figures throughout the Old Testament.


It doesn’t end there. God uses visual images in dreams and visions to New Testament believers such as Ananias (Acts 9:10), Joseph (Mt 1:20), Peter (Acts 10:10-11) and Paul (2 Cor 12:1-4).


The Visual Word of God


God does not consider imagery to be an inadequate or inferior means of communicating as compared with words. In fact, he often considers image to be equally important with words, or he wouldn’t have used so much visual imagery described as his word. Which raises the question: Are dreams and visions, signs and wonders really all that different from words?


In Isaiah 2:1 we read about Isaiah’s vision: “the word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.” [3] In Micah 1:1: “the word of the Lord which came to Micah… which he saw.” In Isaiah 13:1 and Habakkuk 1:1 the expression, “the oracle which the prophet saw” is used synonymously with God’s “Word.” [4]In Ezekiel 1:1-3, we read Ezekiel telling us that his visions of God are “the Word of the Lord.” The prophet Zechariah says that the “Word of the Lord” came to him “as follows,” and then he recounts the vision he saw (Zech 1:7-8). Amos says of God’s revelation to him in several places, “the Lord God showed me” (Amos 7:1, 4; 7, 8:1). When God pictures his “Word” to Amos, Zechariah and Jeremiah, he asks them, “What do you see?” (Amos 7:8; 8:2; Zech 4:2; 5:2; Jer 1:11, 13; 24:3). God did not float Hebrew words in the air like ancient sky-writing. He is defining image-based visions as his Word. [5]


Speaking of God’s visual Word, the last book in the Bible—God’s final word to us—is an epic vision, a feast of visual imagery and theater. Regardless of one’s interpretation of this mysterious book, the images of apocalyptic horsemen, multiple-headed beasts and monsters running around killing people in Revelation are more akin to a modern horror film or fantasy epic than a systematic theology or sermon.


As these passages illustrate, according to God’s prophets, the very concept of “God’s Word” is not an exclusively word-oriented concept. The visual imagery that God paints and dramatizes, just as much as anything he has verbalized through words, is God’s Word. In fact, God’s most important word is not a spoken or written word at all but an incarnate human being. Hebrews 1:1-2 proclaims that God, after speaking long ago through the prophets in many ways, has ultimately “spoken to us in His Son.” We know about his Son through reading the words of Scripture, but what we know is not so much philosophical speculation about truth but dramatic incarnation of truth.


A common assumption among modernist Christians is that “preaching the Word of God” refers almost exclusively to a man standing on a podium elevated above an audience who are seated in pews all facing the speaker. This man lectures them for an hour or so as the climax of the “church service.” Theatrical drama in such contexts is sometimes considered to be less dignified. Many would not even begin to fathom the notion that art outside this church context could be a legitimate form of “preaching God’s Word.” Too bad for them, because God does. [6]


 

FOOTNOTES


[1] See also Deut 6:22; Dan 4:1-3; Acts 14:3; 2 Cor 12:12.

[2] It is important to note that while God used miracles as signs or verification, he did not intend them to be absolute or ultimate in terms of proof. Faith is the biblical ultimate: Jn 4:48; Lk 16:31; 2 Cor 5:7.

[3] See also Isaiah 1:1 and 13:1 to the same effect.

[4] See also Nahum 1:1. The Hebrew for “oracle” means “utterance.”

[5] One exception to this rule is Dan 5:5, where God’s hand does in fact engage in writing judgment on a wall in Aramaic.

[6] It is important to note, of course, that God’s visions, dreams, signs and wonders are almost always accompanied by (if not explained through) words. This should be a cautionary note to postmoderns who attempt to elevate image above word. But this mutual embeddedness of word and image does not suggest the superiority of either word or image, but rather their mutual dependency and equality of ultimacy in God’s usage of language.

 

Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a controversial movie and culture blogger (www.Godawa.com), an internationally known teacher on faith, worldviews and storytelling (Hollywood Worldviews), an Amazon best-selling author of Biblical fiction (Chronicles of the Nephilim), and provocative theology (God Against the gods). His obsession with God, movies and worldviews, results in theological storytelling that blows your mind while inspiring your soul. And he’s not exaggerating.