The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. This book was published by Williams B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: The Religious Conflict Between Image and Word
1. The Church Invaded by Images
The Church allowed itself to be invaded by images. (In one sense Goux (Les Iconoclastes) is right to call into question the images that have proliferated in Christianity. But he errs when he considers that this is inherent in Christian revelation and when he speaks of "the Christian heart that clings to holy images and places its faith in their immanent truth." What he describes here is a complete distortion of the gospel. Although at certain times the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and very uncivilized milieu could be described by these words, they become the expression of fundamental ignorance when presented as an absolute. Unfortunately this ignorance is confirmed throughout Goux’s book whenever he has the misfortune to speak about Christianity. How astonishing to state that the "Christian trinity has a human face"! And that only the eternal Jewish God has a "radical otherness." Goux seems to be utterly ignorant of Christian thought and theology.) It wanted to become visible, establishing itself on the foundation of evidence. This developed alongside the theology of the Church’s power and the lust for power, which became incarnate in the institution.
I am terribly sorry to have to say such unpleasant things about the admirable works produced by Christian art. I marvel at this artistic flowering. I am moved to adoration before Fra. Angelico, the Chartres statuary, the fair God of Amiens, the tympanum at Moissac, and the worship-inspiring judge of Strasbourg. Yes, this is all undeniably very beautiful. And it is all perfectly Christian in its symbolism, but not when it tries to show the mystery as unveiled by images. This is true even of the stained-glass windows and the libri idiotarum. Sculpture is Christian when it limits itself to what can be shown: devils and demons. The tempter of Strasbourg -- now there is something visible! All else is an error.
Naturally, I do not at all condemn those who worked with such great perfection as painters, sculptors, and architects. They worked to the best of their ability, with all their faith, consecration, and service, in order to praise and glorify God. These workers were all simple artisans, and the error did not take place on their level. On the one hand, they were marvelous artists; on the other, they were authentic, dedicated Christians. They wanted to serve God with their art, and in effect, they did serve him. That is to say that God surely accepted their work, which is part of the glory of the nations that will be fully integrated into the heavenly Jerusalem.
They accomplished the prophetic act of reconciling sight and the word. But as we shall see, it is only a prophetic act; that is, it relates to the end of time. Furthermore, the error lies at this point: in believing that it was not an act related to the end of time, but a contemporary act that authorized the Church to consolidate its power. Visualizing God’s message brought in its wake all sorts of consequences in terms of magic, superstition, idolatry, paganism, and polytheism. Whether we like it or not, the abundance of images, ceremonial beauty, the visual triumph of liturgy, and purely visual symbolism -- all these things were the main source of all the medieval and later errors in the Roman and Orthodox Churches.
I said above that it was quite necessary to distinguish between these admirable artists and the Church leaders and theologians who chose to incline everything toward the visual plane. They did this for the sake of efficiency (this is clearly stated and repeated: we must have images because they are more efficacious; in order to see, as Paulinus of Nola says, "if the sight of these shadows when enameled and set off by colors doesn’t make some sort of an impression on these crude and stupid peasant minds"). The purpose of images is to strike the imagination, to arouse interest in religious subjects, to "frequently refresh our memories concerning Jesus Christ crucified for us, or to persuade us to follow the faith and the piety of holy persons" (The Colloquy at Poissy, 1561).
But images also teach: they give a resume of the Bible and Christian doctrine in altarpieces, stained-glass windows, and bas-reliefs: "These are like stories written for the simple and ignorant." However, even so these images produce a feeling of adoration that goes far beyond mere teaching. "Naturally, people love images; even small children love dolls, especially if they are well dressed; they put them in some prominent place and show them a certain respect. This childlike attitude crosses over into religion. Just as dolls are children’s idols, images and statues are grown people’s dolls, which are more honored if they are well dressed. For, since all our knowledge comes through our senses, we need an object to worship that appeals to our senses; we need to see something that compels our attention. We are also drawn to this by visual pleasure and by the ease of images. For it is easier to look at paintings than to understand doctrine, and easier to make a person from stones than to remake a person in God’s image" (Charles Dumoulin).
The sixteenth-century debate over images, which is echoed in the above quotation, also shows a final aspect of these creations: for people in the Middle Ages, as for all those who came before them, images are always endowed with a certain spiritual meaning. They are never solely representation, design, or esthetic. Mainly they are bearers of a message or power. They are an integral part of the sacred world and therefore indicatory, significant, and inviting. You cannot fail to feel their charm. Even if you do not wish it, they take you off to a supernatural domain of worship or magic that is not of this world. They are always means and intermediaries, idol or myth; they are never mere distraction. If they are an evasion, it is an evasion toward the supernatural rather than the imaginary.
These images thus played a role radically different from today’s secularized, rationalized, popularized images. Because they were scarce, permanent, and sacred before the eighteenth century, images held a very special position in human life, not at all comparable to the place they occupy today.
But in the Church images very quickly became the glorification of humanity and of individuals (baroque sculpture concentrates everything on visualizing the apostles’ and saints’ power and their dynamism; finally, the Church’s power is visualized and fills simple believers with terror and admiration). The cathedrals were erected to the glory of God, certainly; but they attested the indisputable power of the Church. These images are associated with the determination of the princes of the Church to dominate society. Their aim no longer is to serve and bear witness to the crucified Savior, the Savior of the poor, but to model society according to principles and ideas based on a philosophy drawn from a synthesis of the gospel. They have a desire to dominate and conquer. They are concerned with efficacy -- not to draw people to the compassionate Savior, but to cause them to obey God’s and the Church’s commandments. This efficacy neatly parallels the ecclesiastical institution’s triumph. We will return to this relationship. For now, let us just note a series of true and indisputable relations: between the will to power, the will to act in concrete reality with efficacy, the visualization of a message that had existed only on the level of the word, the creation of images as a result of this visualization, the elimination of love in favor of Truth as formalized in dogma, and institutionalization at all levels. This sheaf of factors cannot be disassociated. And sight and image are the key to it all.
Here again I repeat that I do not mean that sight is evil, sinful, etc., or that images are bad. The falsehood lies in reducing what belongs to the order of truth in order to make it enter through visualization into the order of reality. Of course Christian statuary was not idolatrous in itself! And Suger’s theology, to which we will return, was perfect. But through necessity, fatality, and the force of events, it produced idolatry.
The explosion takes place in the fourteenth century, just at the time of the worst spiritual, moral, and human disintegration of the Church. There were certainly many statues and representations before this, but they had an entirely different meaning and content, so that they could scarcely be said to involve the temptation to make a visual representation of mystery. During this period we see the profusion of images -- of all images -- and the cataclysmic appearance of visualization’s effect on the people. Precisely when the Church is involved in its worst crisis, it falls back with all its weight on its institutionality, which it magnifies, and on the utterly idolatrous image utilized for every end.
Both the institution of the Church and the image have the same goal: efficacy. Images are efficacious in the transmission of the gospel. The popular preachers of this period are unanimous in saying that only images are persuasive. They are efficacious in holding people’s attention, they have a mystical efficacy, and they are efficacious in fighting pagan beliefs -- but in such a way that these beliefs came to dominate.
Art and theology experienced a complete mutation in this century of spiritual and human disasters. Georges Duby proposes a bold and fascinating thesis: he says that until the thirteenth century the people were utter strangers to Christianity, except for its completely formal aspects. In the fourteenth century the people enter fully into participation in spiritual life; there is a quantitative expansion of what had until then been limited to clerics. The Church opens up, so that there is now a possibility of participation. Verbal expression is too complicated and difficult, so there is direct recourse to images as the simpler way. The people begin to look while participating. They do not get lost in abstract adoration or knowledge of negative theology: they require something concrete.
This movement is accompanied by a sudden change in theology that takes place at the same time: "sight presided over the birth of love and gave it its nourishment . . . everyone at that time was convinced of it . . . to love, one had to see." So mystical theology takes the place of discursive theology. The ideal is to contemplate God himself. In order to do so, one must begin by contemplating pious images. "Make yourself present at Calvary by looking with your soul . . . see with the eyes of your soul how they drive the cross into the ground." Seeing gives greater certainty and a more accessible object.
Images begin to occupy a central position in piety and theology. And, of course, all these images (statues, paintings, and stained-glass windows) represent scenes from the Bible or the life of the saints. But at the same time relics are images that are presented more and more lavishly: "reliquaries are converted into monstrances, which are transparent cases that enable one to see the holy bodies." Liturgical images also appear; at this period the liturgy and its ornaments and gestures become more spectacular and visual.
As a result, the word is repressed. It doesn’t much matter whether anyone understands what is said. What matters is to see what is done, and thus to participate physically. "This is why the display of relics has such an important place in fourteenth-century rites. This is why the Mass is interrupted for such a long time at the moment of elevation, when the consecrated host is offered to the sight of the people." Images in Bibles become more and more embellished; there were "Bibles for the poor in which the story was cut up into sections by a series of simple, expressive images. But there were also corporeal images: the body’s participation in the sacred mysteries. Collective acts were created in which the entire population of a village mimed the Passion narratives. In these mimes both body and soul tear themselves away from everything that restrains them." These are the sacre rappresentazioni.
It is much less important to live one’s faith than to mime it, participating with one’s body. Knowing revealed truth matters less than being involved in a corporeal imitation of it. For some, gesture is the main thing; for others, seeing replaces everything. The body occupies a position of considerable importance through a sort of contagion. Was there mystical content in these activities? For some, this was indisputably the case: "H. Suso, miming Jesus’ Passion, proceeded toward the contemplation of an image of Christ crucified."
In any case, these brief notes show that our modern thinkers, so proud of their inventions, were in large measure preceded by others. When I hear serious scholarly presentations of the pedagogical role of images, I remember that all this was precisely stated by clerics and friars in the fourteenth century. I often think about the utterly convinced, impassioned look of those who talk about the new theater and its unheard-of discovery of direct participation, in which the spectator enters into the act; and the pride of the specialists and young people who rediscover the body (struggling against this abominable Christianity that has covered over, restrained, and eliminated the body) and tell us pompously about corporal expression, which will replace useless spoken language. It is through the body, mime, and the contagion based on visual stimulation that one transmits . . . what? No, we no longer transmit anything. We only participate. Just listen to all these innovative, revolutionary statements, these discoveries of things never before known in the West (since, of course, the peoples of the Third World have retained the authenticity of corporeal expression, spontaneous theater and ceremony, carnivals and bodily participation in the Mass). When I hear all this, I suddenly find myself right back in the fourteenth century, when all this talk -- exactly the same thing -- was already being heard, and from Christians! This great contemporary vanity (like discovering the moon, because we are ignorant of everything) rests also on other foundations. To these we will return.
For the Church and the fourteenth century, this rush toward images, toward the "realization" of spiritual and revealed truth, ends up of course in magic and the coarsest of beliefs. This is a far cry from theological rigor and the precision of the word. Instead, we have effusion of feeling, flagellation, "mystical crises," and worship of images in themselves. It is at this period, for example, that people begin to believe that it is enough to "look at the image of Saint Christopher to ensure one will not die in mortal sin on a given day." Images take on supernatural efficacy -- images in themselves.
Here we are at the opposite pole from faith, in the most incredible superstition. In the name of efficacy, preachers spread the worship of images, ignoring the distance that the sign implies, and without any reference to a signified. The directness of sight and evidence attributed everything that was taught Jesus’ miracles, for example -- to the image itself. When we speak of "medieval superstition," we must refer it primarily to the fourteenth century and to this explosion of things visual, corporeal, represented, and of reality.
From this point on the easy way is open. People must be made to see. So they will go from statue to statue, immersing themselves in seeing increasingly fascinating things, ending up with the baroque and the "glories" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Until then, God had remained beyond representation, but with the advent of the glories, God could be seen. Artistic representation will become more and more realistic in its detail, culminating in the vulgar religious art called in France sulpicien. If people need to see, and if a statue has power and holiness in itself, it must cease to be a sign, and reproduce reality faithfully and photographically.
All this coincides with the fundamental identity crisis of Christianity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and to the crisis in the relationship of Church and society. The identity crisis is double: the loss of the certainties of the faith, and the loss of systematic theology. This is the period of great social and popular crises, such as the Black Death; one-fourth of Europe’s population disappears within a two-year period. Death triumphs. The certainty of the words of the gospel is doubted. God is not all-powerful, since we are experiencing such tragedy. People felt they could not have confidence in the Church’s traditional preaching, since the Church was unable to protect them. They needed other protections and means, other sources of help and certainties. They lost faith in the promises; one must clutch at visible reality, which at least gives us something unquestionable.
Systematic, integrative theology is lost in the midst of the most terrible disputes, which are political as well as religious. Nominalism, secularization, and negative theology triumph. All speech can do is fall silent. Since a person can no longer understand or develop what is left of theological discourse, he falls back on visual things and contemplation through a mystical gaze.
But during the same period we have the Church’s internal crisis (the moral crisis, the Avignon papacy, and the Great Schism) and its external crisis (the Church repressed by the political powers and confined to religious matters). The Church responds to this double crisis by increasing its reliance on the visual and institutional planes. The Church does not accept its privation and its reduction to wandering and poverty; it does not choose to return to its status of "wanderers and travelers of the earth" and to pure evangelical preaching in a state of destitution (as St. Francis of Assisi and many others had prescribed a century earlier; but they were immediately betrayed by their successors). Instead, the Church persists in its desire to consolidate its power. And since truth no longer has any weight, the Church will triumph in reality -- visible and institutional reality.
This is the great century for the institution, as well as for visualization; the two always go together (in our day as well). This is true because institutions are a construction of reality -- an effort to grasp reality, a superstructure of reality grasped by sight. Thus institutions are a normal consequence of visualization. If reality is all that counts (economic, political, social, familial, and professional reality), if all of human life is reduced to our social and productive being, and if everything takes place in this world, the corollary of this discovery of the primacy of the senses is the will to organize institutionally. The Church tried to resolve its multiple crisis by developing and strengthening itself institutionally.
Institutionalization and visualization -- the two reinforce each other. The institution arises from visualization and from the invasion of images, and also reproduces this invasion. The power of images is established on the very foundation of the institution. We must have something to show. Only institutions fill this need. We must have something spectacular and flamboyant, and the institution allows us to have popular celebrations and fireworks. Liturgy becomes sumptuous, and the Church becomes the showing Church because the institution organizes things and manifests itself.
Even the strictly spiritual mystical tendency (seeing God) can exist only on the basis of the institution. Because the institution is solid, forms a good framework around people and things, and makes society function, the mystic can dedicate himself to his passion, his detachment, and his contempt of everything. Administration must be perfect if the political or military genius is to function. Without administration, nothing works. And while it is true that too transcendental a theology leads to a complete liberation from the powers of the world, to a rupture that authorizes absolute powers, the reverse is also true: a strict, precise institutional system authorizes and produces a purely spiritual mysticism. Sight is the common denominator of the two.
The relationship between the visual order and institutions, which was quite clear at its beginning in the Church, is found again in its entirety in our day. Thus the boldness of modern theater, of gesturing, of corporeal expression, and the revolutionary explosion of the abolition of spoken language in the theater are possible only thanks to subsidies granted by the State; that is, thanks to the generosity of the institution. There is actually a deeper agreement: reality alone matters to both the theater and the State.
In the conclusion of the conflict between the word and idols, where we observe the complete triumph of images in the Church, we must become aware of the fact that it is primarily a religious conflict. First of all the conflict is situated in the religious world: in the Church. There the triumph of reality and the elimination of truth take place. This world closes in on itself, denying the possibility of another opening that is specifically maintained by the word. The word migrates continually, from one world to the other, from the transcendent to the immanent. The image belongs to this side and is sufficient unto itself.
Nowhere but in the Church is the primacy of vision created and the word progressively excluded. The Word is sung and becomes liturgical; the Word in an incomprehensible language (We must not forget that Latin was, at least beginning in the twelfth century, utterly incomprehensible to simple believers, just as it is today!) subsists only as an element of the spectacle. No longer is it a word that bears meaning. The Word is excluded and replaced by liturgical gestures, colors, changes of clothing, incantations, and litanies.
Nowhere but in the Church was created the primacy of the institution over social action and ethical questioning. These latter both belong to the domain of the word. The primacy of the institution involves rigidity and the creation of law as the complete solution to people’s and society’s problems.
It is in the Church, and nowhere else, that new scientific thought was formulated. This kind of thinking is attached to the reality of things, unlike previous thinking, which was attached to interpretation or discourse. This new thinking came from the laity and was secularized; it dealt with this world -- the real, visible world -- and only with this world. It was not thinkers, philosophers, and scholars outside the Church who developed this thinking against the Church: only clerics, and often churchmen, formulated this transformation. Secularization was born of and in the Church, as was the concept of modern institutions.
All this was directed by the affirmation (within the Church) of human glory and the desire to possess the world. This is the enormous mutation. And all the laity, materialists and realists, who will follow only carry on what begins at this point. Human glory and possessing the world are attitudes in life that are expressed by the primacy of sight over everything else.
The spread of images that the modern world has experienced began in the Church. Its source was in the "enthusiasm" for images in the Church that is the precise counterpart of the abandonment of revealed truth, of the meaning of the word, of the humility of the Incarnation, of the discretion of revelation, and of the uncertain openness to the beyond and to the echo. The Church opted for what is visible, and with it, for power, authority, efficacy, and the agglomeration of crowds around a reality(Of course, I know that this choice was made before the fourteenth century. But many ambiguities and uncertainties in this orientation remained, and they are erased beginning in the fourteenth century. I also know that the Church multiplied images before the fourteenth century, but they were utterly different and had another meaning. On this subject see the admirable book by Georges Duby, The Age of the Cathedrals. Art and Society, 980-1420, trans. Eleanor Levieux and Barbara Thompson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). that was at last seen and grasped. This was a radical choice of what would be shown; it involved showing and demonstration. But the Word was no longer present. This was because the conflict between sight and language and between idols and the word is essentially a religious conflict, when a rupture occurs between reality and truth.
Revealed truth does not try to annex reality, to assimilate it, or to cause it to mutate. On the contrary, reality tends to assert itself as truth -- as the only, exclusive truth. And when the Church, charged with the responsibility of revelation (which is not religion; if revelation remains authentic, it cannot be part of a religion), opts for reality, it involves the real world in becoming a religious world. The Church thus causes the world to construct the religious meaning of images -- all images -- and the religious superstructure of reality -- all reality. The anti-Christian movements of the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries will follow precisely the same path, simply reversing the signs; that is, they will make the new secular religions(See Jacques Ellul, The New Demons, trans. C. Edward Hopkin [New York: Seabury; London: Mowbrays, 1975], concerning this whole movement.)into a weapon of war against the Church, which will get what it deserves.
Finally, today, according to Maillot, "liturgical renewal is in reality a transformation of Christian worship into Canaanite religion; it involves staged worship in which the visual aspect tries to drown out the word ... but we must be especially concerned about the teaching of children and what was called until recently ‘catechism., Everything else is now done in catechism classes: scribbling, drawing, dissecting pictures, film showings . . . they have utterly forgotten to come back to the written word."
2. Ultimate Value and the Captive Word
In this section we will consider a preliminary approach to this religious conflict in the context of the non-Christian religious universe of our modern world, rather than in the context of Judeo-Christianity. The visual image’s triumph ushers us into a religious universe that is different from the universe of the word. The conflict seems to take place in two different domains: that of "ultimate value" and that of excluding what is hidden
In the first case, the central question is "in what do people place their confidence today?" They rely not on the sight of a reality that surrounds them, but rather on the multiplication of artificial visual images that constantly attract their attention. The situation in which we find ourselves is contradictory: the visual order places supreme value on the reality in which I live. I am subject to this confrontation, and sight actually allows me to position myself in reality and to act on it.
But the multiplication of artificial images changes this relationship. These thousands of changing images scatter my attention, provoking hallucination and hypnosis as I am submerged in them. The resulting dizziness and the enormous mass of visual stimuli tend to ascribe ultimate value to reality. Everything, and the truth about everything, must henceforth be situated with respect to this reality of images. Not only situated, but judged, appraised, and evaluated. A thing’s value depends on its relationship with this reality and on its ability to find a place in and modify it. Anything that fails to act on visible reality has no importance.
Obviously I am not speaking here of conscious, clear, and philosophical thought; we are dealing rather with the spontaneous feeling of the average person whose brief thoughts are led by the images that are part of him. But this preconception of the average person is the religious attitude of an age. It is not a matter of an explicit ritualized religious value given to this reality, but simply a belief in its ultimate value. This coincides strikingly with Marx’s philosophical thought, for example, when he wanted to gauge the truth of a thought by the Diesseits, the reality on which the thought could have a grip. In Marx this idea expressed a conscious and systematic materialism. That the tone has now changed is evidence of the effect of visual images.
Everything must be referred to this visible reality. It serves to decide between true and false in one’s thinking. Actually, true and false are not at stake; rather, it is a matter of correct and incorrect. This is because an exact science can produce a technique that acts on this reality or explains reality; but this has nothing to do with truth.
Furthermore, this confusion in contemporary language is typical. "Correct" and "true" have become synonyms; so have "false," "lying," and "incorrect." But there is a world of difference between these terms that is not perceived. Visualized reality tries to supply the means of controlling everything in the domain of thought, philosophy, and theology (visualization is at the root of most contemporary theological conflicts!). But the situation is much more complex than this remark would lead us to believe. For everyone knows that visualized reality is visual only through the technical transmission of images. It is not an experienced reality, but a reality that comes to us indirectly through the mass media. As we have seen, this is what assures the visual domain’s triumph. It situates the individual in a universe he believes to be real, since he sees it; but it is a purely fictitious world. It is fictitious because it consists of nothing but an environment made up of images that are absolutely nothing but images.
The only effective reality the individual encounters is that of his TV screen. Everything that takes place on the screen and that the individual takes for reality is simply a pointillistic system of electronic signals. But he takes it for genuine reality, and I have shown elsewhere that this reality is infinitely overvalued in comparison with the reality one can actually live. What is shown on television becomes the important reality, whereas what is lived no longer matters. The stupefying multiplication of images constitutes a whole universe of images in which we are situated.
In other words, there exists, on the one hand, the concrete reality in which we live, but it ceases to matter because it lacks the sparkle and exciting impression given by images. We progressively detach ourselves from reality, whether it is "everyday life" (work and family) or "political life" (in the practical and concrete sense).
On the other hand, we have the imagined reality, made up simply of images, which makes an illusory universe for us. But this universe is so fascinating and gripping that we prefer to situate ourselves within it and live by proxy. It is not exactly an imaginary universe (although it is this, but in a special sense; for our imagination has not established it; rather, it is established by the imagination of those who construct these spectacles), but it does constitute a universe. This spectacle is artificial.(For me there is no pejorative connotation in this word. I do not give special preference to the natural by placing Nature in a position of eminent value. But in this context we are considering the consequences of an exclusively artificial universe, in which everything related to Nature is excluded because it is merely represented.)
Of course, you could say that the other universe (of everyday life) is artificial, since homes, marriage, and now also conception and education are the products of artistry. But there is a world of difference, since I can act on this second universe. I can intervene, and my decision is woven into the constitution of the world in which I live. But the other universe is artificial in the sense that I can in no way affect it; it is made outside of me. Thus through this multiplication of images I end up living in a universe from which I am excluded as subject. I am without responsibilities, without action, dialogue, or power.
We place our religion in this reality. That is, we believe only what takes place through this means (the image, which becomes the universe of images). We receive our values (cultural and moral) from this spectacle. We establish our modes of mediation with respect to this spectacle, which becomes the locus of our strongest gratifications and frustrations. A person pays closer attention to the means of communication than to a worship service!
Thus there is a double process: supreme value is ascribed to images, to the visual which triumphs over the word; then the universe of images in which we are situated is established. This is a purely visual universe (the word plays only an auxiliary role in it), but it is an illusory vision. The second process is an ancient religious one: visible reality is a source of greater religious certainty: I see, and I attach my confidence, my experience, etc., to what I see. Then I establish a religious world (the divine world) that is entirely visualized. It is primarily imaginary and secondarily illusory. I can tell about it in endless detail, with increasing accuracy (the idols as images of the gods, and then the infinite multiplication of deities according to their functions).
Visible reality transferred to the illusion of images becomes our ultimate reference point for living (not for thought!). But the value we attribute to it is strictly fictitious, since it proceeds from mechanisms and is situated in a fictitious universe. A modern individual’s beliefs are all situated within that reality. He never expects anything other than a visible change; any other kind seems fallacious. He places his hope in processes that transform the visible; the expansion of revolutionary beliefs is always exclusively situated in this milieu. No one believes any more in the creative or the founding word. This conflict between sight and word has to do with the ultimate value a society adopts for itself.
The present humiliation of the word is only the current version of a permanent reality: people detest the fundamental word, which nevertheless establishes them as human beings. As can easily be imagined, this is the central drama of every individual; it is another aspect of the death instinct. It is the key to the suicide wish and the real truth concerning the radical separation in a person’s heart. It explains his explosion when he denies what he has believed.
With brilliant insight, Kierkegaard has seen this better than anyone. (For this analysis I return to the first part of the previously cited book by Viallaneix, Kierkeguard et la Parole de Dieu. In this section, Viallaneix has thrown light on the degradation of the word especially well. But one should read her entire book.) Viallaneix has gathered his thoughts on the subject under the title "Captive Words," because all human words are overpowered by dissonance. And among these captive words can be discerned the forgotten word, which is the word of creation, the frozen word of philosophy, and the poetic word that is sung. We are made to live these words, but they have become incomprehensible to us when spoken; they lead to misunderstanding. The entire creation speaks, but instead of listening to this word, we want to see the secret of this creation. We want to see, and this leads to scientific demands. The words of creation, the world’s song, and the echo of Nature become confused words. According to Kierkegaard, God speaks this way, and creation tells of its creator. But we grasp only an echo that is actually a parody or a counterfeit of the creative word, which as human beings we can no longer hear because of our rupture with God. Nature "promises harmony and speaks to us of a divine message; but it gives us only incomprehensible signs which have to be interpreted." This is made essentially impossible by parasites on the wavelength and by interference, which prevent us from understanding this first indication of a possible word. These "noises of life" usher in all sorts of dissonance and drown out the intelligible word.
Kierkegaard then shows with prophetic vigor the kind of noise we experience today, whose importance he had discerned: the racket of the city, of speed, of politics and revolution, the racket of the press and of advertising, "urban chattering and gossip, like a snowy whirlwind" -- all this (and what would he say in our day!) utterly suffocates the word. "The problem with the daily newspaper is that it is expressly designed to glorify the present moment"; "nonsense, gossip, foolishness . . . these things are caricatures of the word; they transform it into impious chattering, yack-yack, so that the content of the message is scattered by senseless noises." "The retransmission of objective information is a parody of the communication of knowledge.,’ Faced with this mockery of language, Kierkegaard’s only possible response is "the catharsis of silence." Silence these noises and fall silent oneself. Nothing but silence can allow a person to hear a word of truth again as it traces its path through the echoes of nature.
Instead, people attach themselves to these noises. Thus they enter into another domain of the captive or betrayed word: the frozen word of philosophy, which claims to be listening for the ideal. Here again Kierkegaard appears to be amazingly ahead of his time, as he poses the basic question of the relationship between word and language. But he situates the question in its relationship to the rupture between human beings and God, between the word of human beings and God’s. "For the divine code, Nature’s code, and the human code are different. It follows that a person who tries to understand God’s message by himself is condemned to replace it with another message, from another language, which is human language." "The person puzzled by the jumble of words that creation whispers around him refers them to a linguistic system which he hopes will be able to tell him these words’ meaning.... The word is developed into a language; that is, it finds itself dialectically united to a language."
Kierkegaard proposes an observation (that for his time is astonishing) in which "the basic error in modern times is just this: being continually concerned with what one needs to communicate, rather than with the nature of communication." But after profoundly studying language as an ideal object, he discovers what we thought we had just recently discovered (Viallaneix deserves the credit for showing the extent to which Kierkegaard was ahead of us here!): that "each element of society has an element of discourse that corresponds to it. Both perform a function -- one in life and the other in language. The workings between these elements take on the same form. In short, there is an isomorphism in the human universe and the universe of discourse. Based on this fact, a human typology can be conceived based on an analogy with the study of language."
Language expresses what is deepest in a person, so that it should be clear and coherent. But its reality is quite different: confusion and gibberish. Human discourse has submerged us in misunderstanding and noncommunication, because language has triumphed completely over the word (Kierkegaard gives an extraordinary demonstration of this). So "language and thought are swallowed up by the same chaos." Once again, Kierkegaard connects this contemporary perversion with our inability to hear the Word of God. We substitute our own approach: logic, for example, or philosophical speculation, etc. It is pointless to fill in these outlines, which are found in Viallaneix’s book.
The third movement, concerning the word as sung, is similar: the poet could speak a true word, but poetic communication has been degraded, so we need a rediscovery: another kind of discourse, which would give poetry back its authenticity. "Nature’s sounds resound with vain echoes, because the first word gets lost, with the first impulse. Those who construct systems (philosophers) try without success to catch meaning in the rigid mesh of their abstract concepts. They get bogged down in the chatter of their own reflections and refuse to budge, with all their knowledge. Poets improvise imaginary interpretations of the message that their ear perceives; but they get lost in the field of the possible. None of these is able to restore communication with God or to understand his language, by their own efforts."
Thus the humiliated word of our society, with its particularities, its excessive destruction, its squandering of discourse, its inflated style, and its nonsense, is the continuation or the final result of a long, slow process that took it from the beginning to us. It amounts to the permanent destruction of the word, understood and shown by Kierkegaard, who sees it as beginning with the rupture between God’s Word and the human word, between humanity and God. But the universality of this process does not at all diminish the value that the word and language have had in all societies, nor the strangeness of what is happening today. Looking at the present situation we cannot merely say: "This is just what always happens." Or, "This condition is permanent, since it all began with the Fall." With this point of view, we have no reason to be concerned! To the contrary, we must make this our current concern, since it is an existential question posed to each generation. We must pose it in today’s terms, and not in eternal, abstract terms.
Finally, we must realize that not by accident Kierkegaard raises the issue and perceives this rupture of the word and devaluation of language. He shows both tendencies to be universal, right at the beginning of the modern era; that is, just at the moment when this humiliation was about to begin.
3. The Exclusion of What is Hidden
The second aspect of this controversy is that visualization excludes what is discreet and hidden. The first debate over the triumph of sight excluded spiritual and religious matters and questions concerning truth. This facet of the debate involves us more specifically in the elimination of the Christian revelation. The triumph of things visual involves a radical negation of Christianity (this is probably the central issue in the present crisis). For the triumph of images makes acknowledgment of the Incarnation impossible; the hidden God is not God, precisely because he is hidden.
It is not by accident that the enormous popularity of the "death of God" was born in our world of images: the impossibility of representing God visually leads inevitably in our day to the impossibility of his existence. God is dead -- but beyond all the explicit reasons generally offered, he is dead because he is not visible. We can have confidence only in a visible God who is clearly manifested, exclusively in the visual dimension. When we contrast the successes of science and technique with the failure of religions, we always place ourselves in the visual domain. There even exists a denial of sacred history, the secret history of God with people, which is a mysterious and uncontrollable process that can only be told. All we accept now is common, collective history, which is unique and has no duality. Since it is visible it can be written up in newspapers. It is made by people, so if we continue to believe in God, we include his action with that of people who make history: government officials or revolutionaries, depending on our political tendency.
In the same way the Kingdom of Heaven hidden in the world is excluded. All Jesus’ parables concerning the hidden quality of the leaven or of a seed (things that work secretly and are not seen) to which one can only bear witness by the word -- all this has become absolutely unimportant in our day. For we require, as our only acceptable truth, what can be photographed, with results we can measure statistically, and which we can represent graphically. This hidden Kingdom is as uninteresting to everybody these days as the promised "Paradise."
The Word which testifies that "My kingdom is not of this world" means, as far as we are concerned, that it does not exist, since it can neither be represented nor visually verified. At this point we are suddenly flung into another dimension: politics. It can be said that politics essentially belongs to the visual domain (it uses the word as a means subordinated to ends that can be visualized), whereas the spiritual and religious conflict is of the order of the word. Thus the word-sight conflict is also played out in this area.
Politics involves the disclosure of everything latent, bringing these elements to the light of day so their efforts can be evaluated. Politics means power and capturing the means of power. And power is necessarily located in the visual sphere. Even biblically, when the Word is revealed as power, it produces visible results (the Creation!). But according to Paul’s reasoning, the things that can be seen were made by the invisible ones. Politics, on the contrary, tries to go only from visible things to visible, and to circumscribe everything within the efficacy of power. This is the opposite of the process of witnessing, which never coerces and never gets involved in competition for power. It always leaves the listener with his independence, because the witness always proceeds from the visual to the word.
The current controversy over the Resurrection is a special case. The Resurrection as it has been related to us is impossible, because we can no longer believe in the creative power of a word. Conversely, we cannot conceive of this Resurrection in our visual universe. Here the word goes back to something hidden and is an unobtrusive, discriminating word: separation by this word is the first decisive revelation. The visual, on the other hand, is the universe of nondiscrimination, related to the totality and to unity with violent contrasts. Everything essential about the Christian revelation is called into question (with different degrees of seriousness) by the basic reference to images and by mistrust of the word.
* * * * * *
Most modern theological controversies reflect this conflict. They include the elimination of theology for the benefit of politics, as well as the denial that God is the Word; the denial of the validity of prayer, as well as the impossibility of transcendence and revelation. In another area, that of ethics, the calling into question of behavior judged previously to be Christian (listening, patience, obedience, waiting, vigilance, along with many other modern tendencies) only signifies the primacy of the visual over the oral, and the judgment of ineffectiveness made on a visual basis.
But, were it not for the role of the mass media and the universe of spectacle, we would be involved in a very old, merely renewed, controversy. I am inclined now to say that the above positions are taken not only because of the visual domain but because of the visual domain’s mutation by means of the technical establishment. If this is true, these ethical and theological judgments are nothing but the result of a sociological process and involve the acritical acceptance of the universe of images.
Furthermore, many theologians conformed to their common unfortunate tendency and committed themselves to the direction society was moving, going down the easiest incline; that is, they adopted images with enthusiasm and began to be ashamed of the word. How many proclamations on the modernization of the Church and evangelism have we read and heard, always with the same content: modern individuals are disgusted with discourse; they no longer listen or read; on the other hand, they watch television. If you want to be effective, you must work with images and give up talking. You must change liturgy into corporeal expression, into living tableaux, into captivating spectacle, and transform spoken discourse into popular songs and rock music. These do not say anything, but through their rhythm they involve people in a sort of communion that comes not from the Holy Spirit but rather from people’s identical reactions to extreme stimuli.
When the Catholic Church oriented itself toward visualization, it committed the greatest possible error, all in the name of efficiency. This error contributed to a double process that expressed the great temptation of the Church: on the one hand, the transformation of revelation and faith into religion (thus imitating the world’s religions); on the other hand, the attempt to produce a Christian society, a Christian civilization, a Christian world order. This could be accomplished only by visualization and by surrounding all life’s realities with images.
However, the tremendous perversion which was accomplished in the West between the eighth and eleventh centuries (earlier in Byzantium, where the even greater importance of the icon begins in the fifth century) seems to me quite different from what is happening today -- different from two points of view. First, everything worked due to a symbolism that was both created by the Church and clearly understood by the faithful. In this symbolic process everyone progressed in an authentic spiritual instruction. But today the churches provide poor spectacles in which nothing commits people through new symbols; they are just nourished by fleeting, ready-made images that lack depth.
The second difference is that the medieval Church created this tendency. It had discovered the importance of sight on its own, it was innovative in statuary and liturgy. The Church was producing what no one else did! It was creative. All this involved a theological error, but at least it was inventive. In our day, in contrast, we have only the most insipid imitation of what is being done everywhere else; the Church follows the sociological tendency. Everybody produces television programs; well, then, why shouldn’t we do like everybody else? This is the beginning and the end of modern Christian wisdom.
But the motivation is the same: efficacy. Images are more efficacious, especially when broadcast by the media; therefore...! And we must have images that respond to the good public’s expectations! The corollary is that the word is destroyed. What a frenzy Christian theologians have displayed for accepting structuralism or the theory of incommunicability. What sadistic joy they find in endlessly repeating that the person listening understands nothing of what the speaker says. If the word does not connect, if nothing is communicated by the word, well then, let’s give up and stop talking. And what eager agreement with the idea that language is tyranny, that discourse is nothing but the expression of an undue, illegitimate superiority of the speaker over the person listening. At least, agreement concerning the word’s uselessness is reached with a special kind of frenzy among Protestants, even though the Reformation centered everything on the word. But this contempt for the word tries to justify itself with the most obvious observations; it is shown to have the most commendable intentions, and is clothed in the clearest evidence and the best good sense.
We must improve our evangelism techniques. People no longer understand Christian vocabulary, so we must change it. This is both true and false. It is much more serious than a simple matter of vocabulary; a different choice of words cannot really change the situation. What people do not understand is not certain words but the word itself, whatever its content (unless it becomes mere nervous stimulus in a propaganda context). You can rejuvenate your vocabulary all you like, but you will not be any better understood, because the manner of thinking, the value of the word, the fact that one can no longer trust a person’s word -- all this is called into question!
The essential fact is that people today are utterly indifferent to the question of truth. This is because not only their individual existence but all of society attracts their attention rigorously and systematically to the domain of reality. This is accomplished through the power of techniques, which get a hold on their minds through images. People are indifferent to their destiny and the meaning of life: all this has become mere "literature," and this expression tells the whole story! People are committed to the great technical venture; they devote themselves to it, and images express this involvement perfectly.
Thus, someone will say, we must adapt to this: since people no longer understand the word, let’s replace it with action. This is the temptation of Christian activism: good works, worker priests with a commitment to a union or politics. As we have said, action falls within the province of images. Action genuinely reaches people and lures them, because they find themselves in reality; and action, on most people’s scale of values, rates infinitely higher than the word.
Since people no longer understand the word, we should use propaganda: "audiovisuals," expositions, and large gatherings where the word will be only background noise or a pretext. Such a gathering is an image in itself. You have the crowd, orchestration, projectors, and, in this context, someone who speaks and is nothing but an image himself: Billy Graham is the perfect example. Certainly all this will touch people in the crowd.
Telling the story of the Bible in comic strip form is undoubtedly efficacious. The only problem is in knowing if such a comic strip is still the Word of God. In the final analysis, the basic question is why we want to reach people. Let’s remember Jesus’ word to the Pharisees: "You travel over sea and land to make a proselyte, but when you have him you make him twice as bad as yourselves" (Mt. 23:15, JE). This is not exactly the problem we are dealing with, but it is vital that we ask ourselves whether the means we use are able to convey the truth of Jesus Christ. These means can move people, gather them, convince them, and even bring them to church. But such means really convey nothing of the truth of Jesus Christ to people. They merely recruit people by leading them into all sorts of misunderstandings about Christianity.
Action can be a means of entering into contact with people, as can gatherings or film clubs. But such contacts do not lead anywhere. Neither action nor films convey any truth, since, like images, they are unable to convey anything besides reality.
An exposition that is supposed to be evangelistic is dangerous for the gospel. What can a Church of the Word possibly show? Images? Of what? For Protestants the matter is obvious: images of the past can be used: old Bibles, old engravings. But can these convey the truth of Jesus Christ? On the contrary, won’t such images involve the spectator in all sorts of misunderstandings and confusion? He will be led to identify the Church’s life with its history, to confuse humble Christians with heroes, to think of Christianity as a religion, and to identify rites and numbers with truth. That is to say that such efforts lead people into utter falsehood. All images include within themselves the same danger. Thus theologians, priests, and pastors are contaminated by the relentless triumph of images. Once again they enter the order of necessity, abandoning the order of freedom. Instead of straining toward truth their concern is for reality.
In this connection the most unthinkable reversal takes place: when all of Christianity is based only on the word, and the word is accepted as the Word of God that can be expressed only by the human word corresponding to it, then the contempt and abandonment of this human word inevitably signifies abandonment and contempt for the Word of God. By allying itself with images, Christianity gains (perhaps!) efficacy, but destroys itself, its foundation, and its content. In reality nothing is left to say -- not because the word is false, but because images have emptied it of meaning. And pious Christians have been gripped by the "evidence" that these visual media and this rash of images are good, lovely, and pleasant to taste, and able to make them wise.
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