Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Church/Future Reloaded (Pt. 3)

Church/Future Reloaded (Pt. 3): From Word-Based to Image-Driven

Alwyn Lau

("He is the image (ikon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." Colossians 1:15)

Today's culture is image-driven. Yesterday's world was word-based. While words may be the vehicles of truth, images forcefully drive home reality.

The human mind is made up of metaphors and images. The earliest recorded languages were pictographs. Do you dream in words or images? Why will you forget a name quicker than a face? Why will you remember where a quote was on a page but forget the quote itself? Because your visual memory is stronger than your textual/verbal memory. Check out these names: Michael Jordan, Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson, Britney Spears, Dr. Mahathir – did an image of each of them pop into your brain? Think of the color of the pillows on your bed. How did you do that? Isn't it by replaying the picture of your bedroom, bed and so on, until you 'found' your pillow and '(re)-viewed' the color of its sheets? We 'do' a memory by re-presenting and recalling images.

Images come as close as human beings will get to a universal language. Propositions are often lost on today's learners, but metaphor they will hear; images they will see and understand. Image dictionaries[1] are replacing word dictionaries and image banks are becoming as valuable as money banks. Cyber-space itself is becoming less word-based and more image-based through the spread of avatars (one's self-created image online, your personal graphic identity in the cyber-world).

The greatest image in the world, the image to which we draw people into a relationship, is the image of God in Jesus the Christ.

If you want people to think differently, don't tell them how to think - give them a mental tool i.e. a metaphor or image. Metaphors lodge truth in the imagination. To sculpt a metaphor is to create and transform the world. The greatest communicators in history have used the wizardry of metaphor magic.

("The mind never thinks without a picture" Aristotle)

Jesus use parables, an image-based form of narrative. Dante created physical pictures of hell, purgatory and heaven that churches still hold on to today. Mosaic Church's[2] Erwin McManus' success in building a multicultural, multi-generational mission congregation is in part to his masterful employment of vivid images, not merely words, to embody his church's mission and values, e.g. seeing churches as "spiritual bomb shelters", "you can't wash the feet of a dirty world if you refuse to touch it." Albert Einstein liked to talk about the gift of 'fantasy' as being essential to his work. His insights came from visual images he conjured up intuitively, then translated into the language of mathematics e.g. the theory of special relativity was triggered by his musings on what it would be like to ride through space on a beam of light[3]. After watching The Passion of the Christ (the 2004 Mel Gibson-directed blockbuster on the final hours of Jesus), a Texan man confessed to the police of killing his girlfriend[4].

Visual language is no longer an option. We are a print-saturated, word-based church in the midst of visual technologies that are creating a whole new visual culture. Metaphors are the medium through which biblical spirituality will be fashioned for this new world.

("Parable is the root of the human mind – of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and even of speaking." Mark Turner, Neural and Cognitive Scientist)

In defining realities, metaphors create realities and the most fundamental tools of thought. That's why the power of liturgy is so intense: Liturgy realigns our metaphors to conform to Christ, which transforms our lives. Julius Caesar and Joseph Stalin filled the landscape of their nations with images of themselves – images captured and subdued the imagination of the conquered. As the single-swoosh Nike will testify: The ultimate in power is not to have the first position or the last word but to have the ability to order and ordain metaphors. Images are a language of power.

Jesus exerted leadership not only through words but also via 'performances' or 'performance-metaphors'. He rode on a donkey, cleansed the temple, fed the thousands, raised the dead, turned water into wine, carried a cross, etc.

The Old Testament prophets spoke God's message using a wide range of dazzling and intense imagery (from almond rods to boiling cauldrons to bricks to furnaces and much more[5]) in addition to performing symbolic actions (e.g. Hosea and his unfaithful wife, Isaiah's public nakedness, etc.) If the Church is to present Christ to today's world, we must learn to communicate like Jesus: through metaphor, parable, icon, image.

("A religious symbol does not rest on any opinion." Ludwig Wittgenstein)


1. Take a moment and count the number of images and metaphors ascribed to God in the Bible (e.g. rock, shield, etc.). How many can you remember? Which is your favorite? Why? Finally, how about thinking of some new ones? (e.g. He is my Anti-Virus Protection?)
2. See, reflect and discuss with a close friend LIFE Magazine's 100 Photos That Changed the World at
3. Reformer Ulrich Zwingli argued that money spent on images decorating Catholic churches should be spent on poor relief. For what were the poor if not the true images of God? So the Protestants stripped churches of artwork and divested books of 'illuminations' or pictures. Did Zwingli do the right thing?
4. Neurologist Antonio Damasio said that consciousness begins, "…when brains acquire the simple power of telling a story without words…" Consider staging a drama or a mime telling the story of Easter or Christmas, without narration, using only music and pictures[6].
5. A senior Coca-Cola exec once declared that the company could survive the loss of all its assets, provided it kept possession of the Coca-Cola logo. With the logo, it would be possible to walk into a bank and receive funding to replace the entire global infrastructure of the company. Do you believe him? Is a logo that important?
6. Look at the first historical Christian icon: . Look at Nike's swoosh: If someone suggested that our Christian icons have been 'robbed' by icon-driven marketing like Nike's, would (s)he be right?[7]
7. Theologian Robert Banks called films the "parables of the 21st-Century" – assuming he's right, how can the church take advantage of the movie phenomena? How can the Body of Christ turn Hollywood to its advantage?[8]
[1] See,, etc.

[2] Visit Mosaic's website at

[3] See TIME Magazine's article Was Einstein's Brain Built For Brilliance? at,9171,1101990628-27180,00.html

[4] Read the BBC news story at

[5] For a good listing of the imagery used, visit

[6] One of the most moving videos of the Christian story circulating on the Web last year was the wordless but very powerful Lifehouse Everything skit. View it at

[7] Read Swoosh! The Perfect Icon for an Imperfect PostLiterate World at, which includes this insightful comment:
"(To) Christians the textless symbol (signified) silent rebellion against the ruling authorities. Within three centuries, the faith signified by the fish had transformed Rome into a Christian empire. Today, in an electronically accelerated culture, a symbol can change the face of society in about one-sixteenth that time."
[8] One attempt can be seen at This site is based on the founders' belief that, as "church" is becoming increasingly irrelevant in society, it is of paramount importance to use popular culture to speak to the lives of younger people and to teach older people how to begin that dialogue.
Alwyn Lau is a Researcher and Teacher at KDU College. Being an astute theological thinker, he is interested in theological methods, emerging theologies, as well as the relevance of the Christian faith to the emerging generation. Alwyn is also concerned about issues pertaining to education. He is presently studying for a Master of Business Administration degree after having his first degree in BScHons Economics (University of London, UK);. He blogs on

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