Image and faithfulness

Image and faithfulness

Our world is saturated with images. Visuals are ubiquitous. They grace magazine covers and populate brochures and billboards.

Images push and shove their way into our line of sight. From logos on T-shirts to tattoos and graffiti, from graphic novels to flickering images on our computer screens, everywhere we look we are inundated by photos, icons, and graphics. Words may inform, but advertisers know that it is the image that sells.

Thanks to the convenience of smartphone cameras and the ease of uploading photos, we now have an explosion of the visual. Visual data crisscross the global cyber-corridors 24/7, ensuring that the eyes of the world stay riveted. Just think of the millions and millions of digitised pictures and video-clips that zip back and forth every single nanosecond of every day on the web.

The human love affair with the image is of course not new. Peoples and cultures everywhere from time immemorial have fashioned visual products. From the Palaeolithic cave paintings at Lascaux in southern France to the exquisitely embroidered Japanese kimono to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, visual expressions are as old as the human race. Homo sapiens have always been homo aestheticus.

Our image-making capacity and inclination is hardwired into us at the dawn of creation when the Creator God made us in his image. Scripture is not against the image or image-making per se. The Lord himself inspired image-making among his people, specifying, for instance, the kind of decorative art needed for the Tabernacle. Christ’s teaching is replete with pictorial examples from everyday life. And when we turn to the Book of Revelation, we find there a feast of fantastic visual imageries.

While visual objects can be God-inspired and God-honouring, they can also be objects of idolatrous worship. The bronze serpent in the wilderness, built at the instruction of God, served to heal Israelites bitten by “fiery serpents”. But the golden calf worshipped by the Hebrews represented their spiritual apostasy.

Images, three dimensional or otherwise, can be consecrated to God’s purposes; but they can also be portals that lead to spiritual infidelity.

Today’s “golden calves” are more sophisticated and persuasive. Modern technological wizardry makes enticing images readily available. We have what Tim Wu calls “attention merchants” who are highly skilled at arresting our attention and redirecting it to whatever it is that they want us to buy, feel, think, or sign up to. And integral to that power to capture attention and sway opinion is the ability to manufacture, manipulate and mass-market images; particularly the pixelated kind that can be instantaneously transmitted to mobile devices across our planet.

To be sure, the opening of the digital highway and the ease with which content is delivered and accessed do bring benefits. Toddler Emily in Serangoon Gardens can now “FaceTime” her dad away on business in Tokyo, while her mum works remotely and communicates on Zoom with colleagues and clients around the world. Scientists and medical researchers collaborate online to develop vaccines against the latest infectious disease.

Yet the same digital highway that enables family connections and makes possible online worship also facilitates human traffickers and scammers to deceive, damage and destroy. Cybercriminals paint attractive pictures of job offers to lure the unsuspecting into bondage. Corporations seek to monetise the human gaze by offering up an array of attractive goods aimed at loosening our purse strings.

Sins often enter through the gates of the eyes. The fruit in Eden was a “delight” to Eve’s eyes. So was the comely form of Bathsheba to the prying eyes of King David from his rooftop. Little wonder that the apostle John, in cautioning his readers against worldliness, warns about “the desires of the eyes”. Given the decadent moral arc of our times, we shouldn’t be surprised to find tempting sexual images aplenty on the digital airwaves. Christians living in such a highly sexualised environment certainly need to discipline their consumption of images.

But Christian faithfulness in our visual and digital culture is not exhausted by steering clear of lurid images. To begin with, it must be mindful of the effect our visual culture has on how people perceive themselves. Constant exposure to pictures of seemingly perfect human specimens, all good looking and with impeccable skin and well-toned bodies, can lead one to despair of the way one looks. And judging by the many happy photos of perfect lives displayed on social media, one’s life seems downright dreary. The self takes a battering and is held ransom by the perceived perfection of others online.

However, what is not always apparent is the way images of perfection on social media are severed from the reality they purport to represent.

The hegemony of the image tends to lead to the prioritisation of perception over substance.

What meets the eyes is not necessarily the same as what is there. Photoshopped reality always looks more pristine than the real thing!

This disconnect between image and reality is evident not only on social media but also, unfortunately, in the mass media. Particularly in the politicisation of our media outlets, seen, for instance, in the eroding of the line separating news from opinions. It is not so much bearing witness to the truth that matters; it’s about winning. Staged events, fake news reports and deepfake videos are part and parcel of the arsenal in the contest for votes and influence. Rather than serve the purposes of truth, images are manipulated and weaponised for political gain.

Living as we do at a time when the image tends either to conceal, distort, or ignore the truth altogether, it is imperative that followers of Christ bring truth to bear on our image-making. After all, our Lord himself is both imago and logos, the expressive image of the invisible God and the revealing word of truth from the Father. The imago of perception needs the logos of truth. We need the discernment of the Spirit to help us navigate our way through the constantly evolving maelstrom of our image-laden digital world.

Dr Mark Chan is the Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at the Trinity Theological College. This article was first published in Trumpet (April 2023 issue), a publication by Trinity Theological College. It is re-published with permission.