Word Versus Image

Article written with John Parker

After having beseeched, urged, appealed to us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, the apostle Paul now turns his attention to the mind, for this is where the necessary sanctification process must begin. Only by being transformed by its renewal can the believer prove, that is, discern, appreciate and determine to obey, God’s will.

There are two things that we are simultaneously urged to ensure; the verbs translated ‘be not conformed’ and ‘be ye transformed’ each speak of an ongoing process. The apostle Paul does not tell us here how the mind is renewed, but it is clear from the whole corpus of his writings that only the Holy Spirit has the power to do this and that He does so as we read, study, meditate on, and ‘hide in our heart’, the Holy Scriptures, the word of God. As maturing believers, we also know this to be the case experientially.

The word translated ‘mind’ here denotes, ‘the seat of reflective consciousness, comprising the faculties of perception and understanding, and those of feeling, judging and determining’.1

Perhaps the most fundamental faculty of the mind is language. It has long been understood that language not only expresses the mind but that, as it is used, it also shapes and forms the very fabric and character of how we think, that language ‘programs’ the mind; mind and language are inseparable.

From the very beginning, God is revealed as one who speaks: ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light’, Gen. 1. 3. So creation, in all its glory and diversity, commenced and was accomplished by His word, Heb. 11. 3; for ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth’, Ps. 33. 6. Creation is also upheld by that same powerful word, Heb. 1. 3.

From eternity the Word was with God and the Word was God. ‘God’ and the ‘Word’ cannot be conceived as ever having existed without each other. They are distinguishable but inseparable.2 The Word is the eternal Son who became God incarnate, ‘and the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’, John 1. 14.

God is a communicator; we see throughout scripture that He desires to communicate with mankind. He uses various means,3 but centrally He uses language, to converse and communicate with us in propositional terms.

The capacity for language and its associated activities of speaking, reading, writing, rational thought, empathy, perception and so on – all at a very complex level – are, thus, essential and foundational to what it is for man to be created in the image of God and are therefore unique to mankind. Language is fundamental to nearly every human activity.

Language is at the heart of any personal relationship. It is through language that we convey our thoughts and feelings, our very selves, to another person. We cannot get to know someone by merely basking in their presence; we need to communicate with that person, to converse and to commune. There can be no personal relationships without language.

There can, therefore, be no relationship with God without language. It should not surprise us, then, that God chose to reveal Himself to us in the most personal way through His word – the Bible.4 Would we expect Him to reveal Himself in mere feelings? Some religions may stress visions, experiences, or even the silence of meditation as the way to achieve contact with the divine. The Judeo-Christian tradition, however, insists on the role of language. ‘What better way could be conceived than that God should address us through language, that He should give us His word?’5

‘My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee … then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding’, Prov. 2. 1, 5-6. ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’, John 6. 63.

The whole Christian revelation centres on a book. Indeed, according to English Professor Gene Veith, ‘The Bible is the primal Book, the most ancient of all literary texts and the source of all literacy. Reading the Bible tends to reading other books and thus to some important habits of mind’.6

We can see now that the skill of reading, and its associated activities, is essential to our spiritual growth and one that must be guarded and developed if we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. It must also be said that, since the Holy Spirit is the transforming power, we must be diligent to ‘be filled with the Spirit’, to not ‘grieve’ or ‘quench’ the Spirit and to continually ‘walk in’ and ‘sow to’ the Spirit.7

There are two classes of activity that are ubiquitous in contemporary life, even essential in the second case. They are, if uncontrolled, potentially detrimental to the skill of reading. The first is watching television and the second the use of the internet. Our purpose here isn’t to proscribe these activities, or even to consider their content, but rather to briefly consider the problems of the first of those forms itself.8

Media scholar and social critic, Neil Postman, astutely analyses how different forms of communication shape the thinking and culture of different people groups. He first discovered this connection when he read the Bible. In the second of the ten commandments, God prohibits the Israelites from making any graven image, and bowing down to them, or serving them: ‘for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God’, Exod. 20. 4-5a. Recently delivered from Egypt, their God was the one true and universal God and was uniquely to be found in and understood from the word. Any iconography was thus blasphemy, for it allowed a false god to enter their society. He concluded that, ‘People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-centered [TV was beginning to dominate when he wrote] might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction’.9 Television, for him, was akin to an electronically graven image.

This is not to speak negatively against what is legitimate. The contemplation of aesthetic beauty and the ability to create and appreciate art are given by God in His creation and can be used for His glory.

In another very influential book,10 Postman explores the differences between the mental processes involved in reading and those involved in watching television and found that ‘word-centred’ people think in a completely different mode from ‘image-centred’ people.

There are varying cognitive theories of reading, but they all agree that reading involves the highest order of abstract thinking. Reading is an active process demanding and training a sustained attention span. It develops logical reasoning and promotes continuity, the gradual accumulation of knowledge and its connectivity. It involves the sustained exploration of ideas and the confrontation and mastery of complexity. It fosters thinking, planning, imagining, creating and a sense of self. In contrast to reading, engagement with visual media is a passive process promoting a short attention span. It develops merely emotional responses and promotes fragmentation, anti-intellectualism and immediate gratification. It fails to allow the development of the God-given imagination, for all the imaginative work that the mind would do when reading a book, is presented already done. It also fosters a monolithic but shallow public consciousness.

Language is cognitive, appealing to the mind, whereas images are affective, appealing to the senses. When reading, one is able to exercise and develop one’s analytical and critical powers whereas visual content is, by definition, irrefutable: you may aesthetically dislike it but you cannot disagree with it. Propositions are true or false. Pictures are not. Thus, the very propensity of images to evoke a sensual, emotional response is at the heart of the commandment to Israel to ‘make no graven image’.

Postman connects the new dominance of electronic media with the undermining of authority and the loss of a sense of history. He also associates it with the emergence of new values based on instant gratification. It cultivates short-term relationships and pleasure-centredness.

The ‘Modern’ reading age, he says, was characterized by activism, self-confidence and optimism, whereas the ‘Postmodern’ TV age is characterized by passivity and cynical insecurity. He also warns of the logical danger that people who never read never develop the ability to think thoroughly and critically for themselves and, therefore, become easy prey for malign manipulation and tyrannical rule.

Finally, let’s remember Paul’s injunction to Timothy, ‘Exercise thyself … unto godliness’, 1 Tim. 4. 7. He was ‘to be as devoted to godliness as an athlete is to his sport’.11 A part of all that encompassed was to devote and develop his natural powers, sanctified to the Master. We all have the ability to read, so let us recognize it as a responsibility, even as a talent12 and apply our minds, for their supernatural transformation, to the greatest book of all.



W. E. Vine, ‘Mind’ in An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Oliphants, 1940.


J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, Vol. 5, Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1955.


Cf. Heb. 1. 1; Rom. 1. 20, etc.


See the interesting discussion on this in: Gene Edward Veith, Why God Gave Us a Book, P&R, 2011.


Ibid., pg. 9.


Quoted from Gene Edward Veith, Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, Crossway, 1990, pg. 17.


Eph. 5. 18; Eph. 4. 30; 1 Thess. 5. 19; Gal. 5. 25; 6. 8.


Those wanting to investigate the effects of internet use on our mental faculties may be directed to Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Atlantic Books, 2011.


Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Viking, 1985.


Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Delacorte Press, 1979.


Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary, David C. Cook, 2007.


Cf. Matt. 25. 14-30.