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January 11, 2010

Brian Godawa’s Word Pictures – another plea to read well

by quaesitor

Brian Godawa’s latest book Word Pictures is a stimulating read. His day-job is writing screenplays (some of which actually get made into films – no mean feat!) – which has qualified him as an insider to write the excellent (and recently revised) Hollywood Worldviews – easily the best thing I’ve read on engaging with cinema (he has an interesting blog on new film releases too).

But his commitment to the reality of the Christian gospel has inevitably brought conflicts with his professional expertise and experience – too many Christians have (inadvertently?) swallowed modernist presuppositions whole which brought a blindness to the importance of the imagination in the quest for truth – which is frustrating (to say the least) for those who work with their imaginations and creativity on a daily basis. Word Pictures is a feisty book, a right corrective in large part.

The problem with so many who engage with modernism/postmodernism is that it is easy for the traditionally orthodox to dismiss any conclusions as compromise and thus miss the points being made entirely. No doubt some will do that with this – but unlike many recent cultural engagers, he makes a pretty good fist of not throwing babies out with bathwater. He seems at pains to hold reasoned/logical/propositional truth in compatible and mutually dependent tension with imaginary/narratival/personal truth and to a large extent succeeds. That is the main aim of the book and why it is important. It is no sell-out, as far as I can tell. This interdependence of word and image is nicely summed up (in the section dealing with shepherd illustration below):

This is not to say, however, that words are merely reducible to images. For much of imagination involves words, reason and propositions as well. For example, a story about Moses includes propositions about his life or what God has said. When we talk about a painting or a movie, we use analytical discourse in our interaction with the medium. A musical composition follows an underlying rational structure of order. Words and images are not reducible to each other, they are interdependent concepts that can be distinguished but not always separated. (p194)

But I suspect for bringing the more resistant sceptics on board, where Godawa is most compelling is where he makes the case for the wonders of the human imagination having ALWAYS been integral to a true understanding the Bible. Too often, we overlook that it is packed with narrative, imagery, metaphor, rhetoric and great artistry – and crassly assume that we can treat everything as a straight systematic theology – when in fact there is no part of the bible that you can do that with. This was something that great literary critic C S Lewis clearly grasped:

C S Lewis pointed out that the technical term for God, ‘The transcendent Ground of Being” is simply not as rich or full of meaning as the scriptural metaphor “Our Father who art in heaven”. Of course, the creation of theological terms is not inherently wrong, and metaphors are not the only way in which Scripture communicates God’s attributes. But we have to be careful that our theological shorthand will not overshadow or replace biblical longhand. The very theological words themselves reflect the modernist tendency to reduce truth to scientific terminology (every word having the suffix of ‘ology’ or ‘ence’), which may ultimately depersonalize faith and cast theology as a ‘scientific’ study rather than a holistic biblical relationship with God. (p73)

Perhaps one of the reasons I like this book is that Godawa & I seem to share a passion for putting things into tables! This was a particularly helpful one on p74, illustrating precisely the point above:

Modern Theological Term Biblical Image
Omnipotence God has a strong right arm (Ps 89:13)
Omnipresence If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Ps 139:8)
Omniscience God counts the hairs on your head (Ps 139:9)
Transcendence People are grasshoppers to God (Is 40:2)
Immanence You have enclosed me behind and before (Ps 139:4)
Immutability God will not wear out like clothes (Ps 102:26)
Aseity I am the Alpha and Omega (Rev 22:13)
Providence We are the clay, God is our potter (Is 64:8)

Scanned from the book: the statue is representational, the word symbolic; both are images!

So this is in many ways a book about hermeneutics, about handling texts well, about reading (which regulars will know is a bit of a nagging theme of this blog)! It’s no surprise therefore to see the likes of C S Lewis, Kevin Vanhoozer and N T Wright (to whom the book is dedicated) feature prominently. All 3 are great exponents of reading well. I particularly liked Godawa’s helpful distinction between taking the Bible literally and taking it literarily. This helps to disarm a whole bunch of arguments about apocalyptic (e.g. in all the millennial debates which thankfully are less of a deal here than in the US) and about scientific aggro about Genesis):

Kevin Vanhoozer concludes “‘Error’ is… a context-dependent notion. If I do not claim scientific exactitude or technical precision, it would be unjust to accuse me of having erred.” The Bible is without scientific error because it intends to describe reality not in scientifically precise terms but in cultural or literary terms. (p47)

Another nice point was the observation of the effect of post-reformation iconoclasm:

Rather than being an elimination of visual culture, however, the iconoclasm replaced the visual culture of immanence with a visual culture of transcendence…
…This plainness of design lent a new voice to the role of minimalism and elegant simplicity in artistry, not to be confused necessarily with ugliness or lack of aesthetic. (p85)

But it’s also a book about apologetics and cultural engagement – for it is a commonplace to suggest that we now live in a visual age but that is hardly a reason for despair. The Bible (while textual) is in fact thrillingly a very visual book, told in a compelling narrative form. We’ve missed whole swathes of apologetic opportunities by not reading the Bible as it is – but it’s a great story! Which presents us with a head start for, as Tom Wright has said, “… The one who can tell the best story, in a very real sense, wins the epoch.” (p138) Therefore Godawa urges:

We need to be actively, sacredly subverting the secular stories of the culture, and restoring their fragmented narratives for Christ. (p139)

I said it was feisty – and this is obvious in the appendix where he saves up his debunking of common objections (e.g. amongst others: if images are important, then why write a rational book with words?; God left us no canonical works of art; images need words, words don’t need images; and an especially helpful bit on whether or not images are more emotionally manipulative than words; etc).

So this is an enjoyable read – it has a nice gimmick in that each chapter is printed in a different font – just to provoke thought about how form affects our engagement with content (the whole McLuhan medium/message malarkey); and as befitting a book that is called Word Pictures, it does contain a lot of pictures! These are dotted throughout, sometimes apparently random, sometimes illustrating points in the text, always there to provoke engagement too.

So read and be stimulated – because as he nicely observes of too many gospel communicators:

The medium is not necessarily the message, but the message often abuses the medium. (p204)

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