What You See Is NOT What You Get: The Word of God and Screen Technology

Twenty-one years. If you or I live to be sixty-five years old, we will have spent nearly one third of our lives staring at screens—computers, televisions, tablets, cell phones, etc.[1] If you’re gracious enough to read through this post, adding a few more minutes to your life’s tally, I hope you’ll emerge a more critical user of screens and of media in general. This, I admit, is no small task. To be a critical user of media takes constant practice and attention, for to assess what is closest to us—objects and devices felicitous with our routine—seems to run counter to the routine itself: we insult the comfort of ignorant iteration when we cross-examine its effects on other parts of our lives. We are not in the practice of examining an ordinary and familiar action, and that’s what keeps it ordinary and familiar. With screens, as with any medium, we are bound to meet harmful effects of this ignorance unless we turn to Scripture to guide our use and understanding of a particular medium.

Media: Evasive Influences

Before we get to using media critically, we need to understand what a medium is. For our purposes, a medium is anything used to achieve a desired end. What we need to notice is that whenever we use a piece of technology (i.e., a medium)—whether it be a fork, a pencil, a car, clothing, a computer, or a television—it affects (1) our abilities and perceptions, and, because of this, (2) it affects how we engage with the world in which we live.

Now, human bodies are one of God’s most amazing creations. They adapt so efficiently to a medium that we seldom notice what is happening. Before we learned to hold a pencil, our fingers did not “know” how to position themselves to grip and angle a thin, six-inch rod. Now we pick up pencils without a shadow of a thought. We have adapted to the medium, and because we have adapted, our abilities and perceptions have changed.

This is, in part, what media theorists have tried to explain to people: media “act on us” just as much as we act on them. Take the pencil, for example. It appears that we simply write words down on a piece of paper, and that’s it; this is simply all the pencil does. In fact, a pencil allows internal, abstract ideas to be made external and concrete. I can think about how I am awed by seeing a red-tailed hawk perched atop a telephone pole, biding his time and dreaming of field mice, but the pencil, along with the medium of language, allows me to represent that awe outside of my mind so that others can view and respond to it. The pencil combats the mantra that “the mind is a prison”; it provides me with a key, so to speak, with which I can unlock my thoughts and feelings and share them with others. Because a pencil draws out abstract things from our minds and places them outside of us, we may feel frustrated when we cannot manifest these feelings or thoughts within the bounds of the medium. If you have ever felt frustrated by this, welcome to the wonderful world of writing. Shakespeare and John Milton suffered from the same problem, though perhaps they did a better job than you or I at disguising it.

So, the pencil “acts on us” just as all other media do; they change us in the two ways mentioned above: in our abilities and perceptions, and in affecting our engagement with the world around us—our expectations, frustrations, and desires.

The Effects of Screens

We must ask, then, in what ways does the screen medium “act on us”? This question is all the more exigent for Christians because Christian revelation (Scripture) is “disclosed by the word.”[2] As a medium, language is relational, just as God is relational. In fact, “the Trinitarian character of God is the deepest starting point for understanding language.”[3] God related to Himself with words even before creation, using what we might think of as an inter-Trinitarian tongue.[4] As His creatures, our relationships are the fruit of spoken and written words. If language is a medium based in the Trinity, if it was used to create all things (Gen 1) and to restore all things (Christ is the Word of God), then shouldn’t we engage carefully and critically with a medium that tends to marginalize written and spoken words by bringing images to the fore of every communicative act and “screening” us from authentic engagement with people in our immediate environment?[5] I should hope so.

Here are three ways in which screens “act on us.” First, if we imagine screens as virtual windows, they affect us by allowing us to remove ourselves cognitively from any environment by looking into virtual spaces. We may be physically present in a living room when we are watching ESPN, but our minds are elsewhere. True enough, paintings and pictures have acted as “windows” throughout history, but nothing so enthralling as the light-based screen medium has so easily drawn our minds into virtual spaces. Screens act on us by giving us access to other worlds—times, places, fictions, etc.

Second, screens act on us by encouraging immediacy. There is no sub-medium within screens (television, movies, web browsing) that fosters patience in us. Just think of how frustrated you were the last time you tried to load a webpage and waited more than a few seconds. This immediacy disseminates to other areas of our lives; it becomes ingrained in our pattern of expectation to the point where we expect immediacy from other people and from God. The time and patience fostered by language have in some ways corroded since the introduction of screen technology. While the screen may answer our demand for immediacy, it has potential to downplay our need for language-based communion—both with each other and with God. Screens act on us by fueling an already expansive desire for immediacy and efficiency that has the potential to short-circuit our relationships—relationships formed, sustained, and nurtured by spoken and written words.

Third, screens work on us by allowing us to be detached and isolated and yet at the same time to feel connected. One of the reasons why we feel detached is that when we use screens it becomes impossible to be wholly invested in one environment—either the environment around us or the virtual environment made available by the screen. One author suggests that when we are surrounded by screens, we are easily fragmented, torn between two “spaces” and yet effectively not a part of either one of them. She argues that

the computer screen’s new connective possibilities further a tension between being ‘both here and there’ . . . and being ‘neither here nor there’—being overcome by so many screen-reliant spaces as to be effectively prevented from being consciously present in any of them.[6]

In our attempt to be in more than one place at the same time, we end up being “neither here nor there.” So, screens act on us by creating a tension between multiple environments, one physical and the other virtual.

Of course, these effects can be mitigated if we are critical users of screen-based media. But what does this look like? How can we be users of screen media in a way that is biblically prescribed? We have to start by keeping spoken and written language primary in our daily activities, both because language is relational and essential to us as creatures and also because we have always needed God’s Word in order to see the world correctly. We must know how to see the world aright before we can redemptively employ a medium that caters to our eyes.

Through the Ears to the Eyes

We’ve always needed revelation to use our eyes properly. Though after the fall, “we grow in understanding reliably only when the Bible has a central role in dissipating the cobwebs of sin,”[7] even before the fall we needed special revelation to see the world aright. Van Til writes that “even in Paradise man was never meant to study nature by means of observation and experiment without connection with positive supernatural thought communication given him by God.”[8] He continues, “If even in Paradise man was meant to interpret nature in terms of self, and both in the light of the supernatural communication of God’s thoughts with respect to the course of history as a whole, how much the more should man as sinner seek to understand nature in relation to self and to this self as interpreted in Scripture.”[9]

We have always needed God’s special revelation because without it we are bound to interpret the world incorrectly. This was the case before the fall, and, to a far greater degree, is the case now, for “man’s eye and ear and all his senses have been greatly weakened through the effects of sin.”[10] This weakening means that we not only see poorly, but we have become even more confused as to how to use the sense of sight as creatures of God.

The initial confusion came in Genesis 3 when Eve attempted to use her sight in isolation from God’s word. Eve’s eyes did not in themselves deceive her; there was not an irresistible optical appeal to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She was drawn into deceit not by sight but by language—the words of the serpent suggested she could operate outside of God’s instruction.

The most important teaching concerning the medium of human sight in Genesis 3 is that sight involves more than just the eyes. In fact, the proclamation of the psalmist in Ps 19:8 speaks to the heart of the fall: “the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” God’s commandment, His Word, is what enlightens our eyes, not any act that we can commit in feigned independence from Him. Adam and Eve needed some guidance, some verbal command of God in order to see properly. It is when they exchange this command for the words of the serpent that their vision becomes obstructed; their doubt of God’s words functioned as a wall blocking their peripheral vision. They saw only what was before them (the forbidden fruit, on which they now focused because of their allegiance to the serpent’s words) rather than what was all around them (the rest of God’s provision). If our depraved sense of sight has longed for pictures without reference to God’s Word, our renewed sense of sight in Christ re-sounds the original call for our eyes to be used in subordination to that Word.

Processing this fact in light of screen technology suggests that we must be careful to hold Scripture’s prerogatives ahead of the world’s. When the world demands efficiency—even at the cost of fellowship—God’s Word demands relationship. When the world tries to engage us with shallow, emotional messages, God’s Word teaches patience, coherence, and deep meaning related by the most trustworthy speaker. It is only when God’s Word is viewed as primary in our engagement with a medium that we will use that medium in a way that complements the redemptive work of the gospel.

I leave you with two simple points: (1) we need to be conscious of the effects of the screen medium because some of these affects negatively influence our position as relational creatures of God; (2) we need to go through God’s Word to see anything clearly, for His Word was always meant to be in a governing position over our senses. Given these two imperatives, we need to ask ourselves continually how our abilities and perceptions are being changed by screens and how they are shaping the way in which we engage with the world. For Christians, these questions must be followed by another: are these perceptions of and engagements with the world biblically prescribed? We might ask, more specifically, is God’s chosen medium of language being shouldered out of the way by our fascination with images and virtual spaces?

In short, for Christians, what we see on a screen is not what we get. What we see is a message (often pictorial), delivered by a messenger and delivered through a medium. To focus only on the message is to forget how critical means are to an end and how the character of the messenger has a bearing on the truth of the message. What we see needs to be checked by what we’ve heard through God’s Word. We see through what He has spoken in order to see clearly what He has made. When we trust a screen-mediated message uncritically, we risk making a mistake that is hauntingly similar to that of Eve in Genesis 3.

Works Cited

Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Word of God. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010.

Mondloch, Kate. Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Pike, Kenneth. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior. 2nd rev. ed. Paris: Mouton, 1967.

Poythress, Vern S. Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.

_____. In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.

Van Til, Cornelius. An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God. Edited by William Edgar. 2nd ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007.

Notes

[1] Brian Stelter, “8 Hours a Day Spent on Screens, Study Finds,” New York Times, March 26, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/business/media/27adco.html (accessed September 15, 2011).

[2] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 15; emphasis added.

[3] Verb Sheridan Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 17.

[4] This is inference based on the plural cohortative verb נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה (naʿᵃśeh) in Gen 1:26. Some have argued that this is a “plural of majesty,” but I find this argument unconvincing. Given the canonical teaching that God is relational and triune, it makes perfect sense for God to commune with Himself in making a creature after His own image and likeness.

[5] This is not to say that images do not communicate. This is obviously not true. Think of how efficiently a green light communicates to you as you drive down the street. Kenneth Pike makes a helpful distinction between verbal and non-verbal behavior. Non-verbal behavior (e.g., dancing, the flashing of a traffic light—which is a kind of behavior, given that man has devised it) still communicates a message, but that message must be supplemented by verbal or written explanation. It is this verbal and written part of language that tends to be marginalized by screen technology, which presents images with an immediacy that is not possible with verbal or written language, the latter being linear and coherent, the former being readily received by emotions and ingrained perceptions. See Pike, Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, 2nd rev. ed. (Paris: Mouton, 1967), 26–27.

[6] Kate Mondloch, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 79.

[7] Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 47.

[8] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, ed. William Edgar, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 126. See also 128 and 132.

[9] Ibid., 151.

[10] Ibid., 163.

Leave a comment



Cris Dickason

5 years ago

An observation and question: I wanted to confirm the source for the quote re Trinity and language (guessing it was Dr. Poythress). On clickingh the footnote link, I found myself directed to Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant. Looks nice, and I’m a raptor fan, but fial to see the connection to a quote on the Trinity and language. I then see that notes 2 & 4 also point to Cooper’s Hawk.
https://coopershawkwinery.com/menus/restaurant-menu/chicken-specialties.php#_ftn4

So, the question is: is this a deliberate object lesson concerning digital media, a gag/lesson, or is there a problem?

I have screen captures to athenticate if needed.

-=Cris=-

Camden Bucey

5 years ago

That was my error, but I appreciate that you thought we were trying to teach a higher lesson. This is what happens when I try to multitask. I was formatting the footnotes while also sending my wife an email about a dinner place.

Pierce

5 years ago

Cris,

We’re working this out now. Thanks for pointing it out! I promise no objective lesson was intended (I’m not that clever), and Poythress, to my knowledge, doesn’t typically post articles for the Coopers Hawk Winery. It should be fixed shortly. Thanks again.

-Pierce

Thomas Tkach

5 years ago

You alluded to this several times, but do you think the use of screens is tied to an even deeper issue of image vs. word. Screens can be used to display words (like pages in a book) and images, but they seem to more greatly enhance the intensity and virtual-reality-creating effect of the latter (moving images over still). Is the word-image issue a key to the wise use of screens?

Also, this page took forever to load, which was a great illustration, even if unintended!

Pierce

5 years ago

Hey Thomas,

Thanks for your questions. The image vs. word debate is certainly involved, but you’re right to notice that the issue is not so simple. We view words on screens all the time, so that has to be accounted for; still, screens are dominated by image-based messages. I’ve written of this more fully in a book that I’m currently trying to have published (God and the Screen: A Critically Redemptive Approach to the Screen Medium). I just have to convince a publisher that people will read it 🙂

My short answer is, yes, the word-image issue is critical. Words, I would argue, are always used in redemptive history to interpret images correctly. Some argue that images are inherently “evil” or “deceptive.” I disagree with this. I think that Scripture celebrates the use of imagery, but only to the degree that those images are mediated, explained, and interpreted by words. In short, I think our current problem in a visual culture is not necessarily that our media are pervaded by images, but that we are letting the images themselves dictate meaning and conform us in a way that only words should. Does that help at all?

-Pierce

Thomas

5 years ago

Yeah. I just wanted some quick thoughts, and they were helpful. If I weren’t buried in books already, I’d read yours if it were published.

Pierce

5 years ago

Thanks Thomas, I appreciate that. I can sympathize; I have my own pile of books to get through, and the pile never seems to get any smaller.

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