Are pictures replacing words in our culture?

too much advertising in societyIt is rare this day-in-age to drive down a billboard-absent freeway or to flip through an advertisement-free magazine. In fact, images are so much a part of our culture that we hardly even notice them. Some fear, however, that the image is replacing the written word and that our minds are beginning to become image-based storehouses, rather than literacy receptors. According to Os Guinness, “our world-deficient culture is biased against understanding. With an increasing reliance on visual communication, the trend is to appeal to the emotions rather than the understanding”. He goes on to argue that we have chosen “entertainment over exposition,” and that our attention spans have grown dangerously short for the written word. While secular advertising is known to repeatedly cross the line of morality, is the real issue our intellect? The problem is not that we rely too heavily on images, but that we as Christians do not know how to use them correctly to affect the mainstream audience.

Studies have shown that the use of images, in conjunction with words, create more positive knowledge retention among students, as opposed to simply lecturing without images or slides. In fact, there was a point in human history when all we had to communicate with were images and symbols. The Egyptian empire, arguably the height of human intellect and philosophy, was a culture entirely based around the hieroglyph, or a graphic symbol or picture representing a word or idea. Jesus, during the peak of His ministry, was continuously using the parable as a way to relate with His followers. However, when He spoke with the religious leaders He chose to speak in a way they would understand: through the text they had adamantly studied. In a way, Jesus altered His teaching style and the way He related to humans based on His audience. In fact, storytelling was the popular means of entertainment in those days, and Jesus took advantage of it by incorporating His own message through stories.

Some even argue that images are not used enough, especially in the academic setting, and students are forced to lean in a way that is difficult for them. Some people challenge the notion that after the age of sixteen your mental network is relatively fixed. Pointing to synaptic growth in over stimulated adult rats… they imply that, with enough repetition, training does reconfigure the brain. Superficially, they are correct. Adult rats placed in an exciting rat world of mazes, tasks, and games do grow more synapses than their bored brethren in empty cages. They stretch the implications of these discoveries too far, however, when they say you should actively try to redesign your brain through training and repetition.

Judging by this research, we can assume that not all students learn best through memorization and even reading assigned texts. Our academic system is forcing students to learn in such a way that adults learn, neglecting the importance of images to education.

religious symbology in lord of the ringsGuinness goes on to argue that we are too “seeker-friendly” and “audience driven,” and that we attempt to justify this by asking, “Isn’t this the world we live in?” (96). Well, to be quite honest, this is the world we live in and we as Christians must understand how to use images effectively and proactively. Guinness further defends his topic by saying “words are integral to the drama of revelation and salvation – in direct contrast to images and sight”. This theory completely ignores the evidence of visual stimuli in connection with real-life application and image-based education. In a way, it is deciding a single way that someone can come to know Christ as his or her personal savior. The theory ignores the power in films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, or the religious symbolism in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings.

“Images were far more responsible for the explosion of knowledge that began in the fifteenth century than they have been given credit,” says Susan Lukesh. “They will play a major role in the similar explosion we are undergoing today as they become tools in developing knowledge rather than simple illustrations”. We cannot ignore the impact that images have on education, especially the ability that we have to use them positively in a world filled with negative images. We as Christians must continue to implement image-based teaching in our schools, workplaces, and even churches. However, with this power comes great responsibility in that we must educate ourselves to the best ways we can use images without being too overbearing or sloppy. God has gifted us with minds that remember images, not text, and we must be responsible for placing positive images into the mind of the world.

Kyle Richardson

Kyle Richardson

Writer at Electric Beach
Kyle Richardson is a graphic designer from Portland, Oregon. He is also a husband and father to 3 kids. He appreciates all things Star Wars, DIY, and outdoors.
Kyle Richardson