The Pictures Inside Our Heads

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

The following appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 26-28. Used by permission.


The Christian knows that the dichotomy between "truth" as a linear narrative and "truth" as shaped by images and the "pictures inside our heads" must be bridged.

Richard D. Heffner recently examined the explosive response to Oliver Stone’s movie JFK and concluded that what really disturbs Stone’s critics is that he represents a new and powerful kind of historian, one who is "fully determined to have his own way with the pictures inside our heads." Stone’s "mind-boggling special effects, his rapid cuts and purposeful edits, his musical up-beats and down-beats, his endless flashbacks and flash-forwards, all play with our heads, mold our perceptions so much more effectively than the more linear media ever did."

What’s interesting about JFK, Heffner quotes Stone as saying, is that "it’s one of the fastest movies. . . . It’s like splinters to the brain. We have 2,500 cuts in there, I would imagine. We had 2,000 camera setups. We’re assaulting the senses . . . in a sort of new-wave technique. We admire MTV editing technique and we make no bones about using it. We want to . . . get to the subconscious . . . and certainly seduce the viewer into a new perception of. . . what occurred in Texas that day."

Heffner, himself a historian, finds JFK filled with "not-quite-provable speculations about the end of Camelot," but he is intrigued by the angry response to the film on the part of print media and television journalists. Heffner, who is also chairman of the motion picture industry’s film rating system, suggests that the anger of the "lords of print" derives from their awareness that Stone and his "fellow celluloid/video Pied Pipers will become our nation’s leading storytellers." The age of Gutenberg is experiencing its last gasp. We may dislike their vision, but these new storytellers "will set our national agenda, interpret our national future, just as the scribblers themselves had done until these last sputtering days of the 20th century."

The Gutenberg era has had an important connection with Protestantism. Under the slogan "sola Scriptura," Protestants translated the Bible into the vernacular, and with the help of the press distributed Bibles to an unprecedented number of people. With Gutenberg’s printing press the story of creation, fall and redemption was put into linear form, and Protestants have always been proud of their control over the biblical narrative of redemption. This was a notable advance, but also a major loss because it shifted the church’s focus from visual images to the printed page. Critics’ hostility toward Stone’s imagistic form of history has a parallel in Protestants’ hostility to visual art, and their corresponding insistence that print is superior to any other form of communication. Along with this preference goes a modern bias against artistic work, which is deemed irrelevant to the business of fact-gathering.

Heffner’s remarks about the last gasp of the Gutenberg age relate directly to the mainline churches’ dependence on print media to convey their message. The community that formalized the Bible expressed itself in signs and symbols. Its members pointed to a story with a beginning and an end, but this narrative is not limited by time or space. It is not just a linear narrative. It is a work of art, forged by a community of believers. It is a document that continually surprises and provokes. Its power lies not in the sequence of events it describes but in its power to transform our vision. It is a narrative that asks for commitment, not agreement.

The Bible is crammed with images that assault the senses, and their intention is certainly to "seduce the viewer into a new perception" of reality. That seductive process began in lonely encounters between God and Moses on a mountain, God and Daniel in the lions’ den, and God and Jesus in a garden. A faithful community sanctified the stories of these encounters and declared them valid expressions of God’s reality.

This notion of a transcendent source to the narrative is especially difficult to grasp in our era. We prefer to live by Protagoras’s dictum that "man is the measure of all things." And in order for Protagoras’s "man" to maintain this fiction of self-sufficiency, he tries to "measure" all things, especially through stories that move in a linear sequence.

But the Christian knows that stories are not bound by their linear shape, that the meaning of stories goes beyond the facts they portray. Art and faith converge in a protest against the elevation of linearity as the final word about reality. The Christian knows that the dichotomy between "truth" as a linear narrative and "truth" as shaped by images and the "pictures inside our heads" must be bridged—and that it is bridged in the faith that God creates and redeems reality and that God is the source of all that we are and will be.

Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler respected the power of linear narrative, but he was constantly reminding us that to receive the full majesty of the biblical story we must accept it as an uncontrollable and unpredictable work of art. In one essay he pointed out how often the Gospels speak of unexpected "bestowals of grace," as in such phrases as "and suddenly. . . and on the way he met. . . now it happened that there stood before him a man." It is "in the midst of the many-threaded, wild unsystematic of the actual," said Sittler, that "the not-expected was crossed and blessed by the not-possible."