The Vanishing Word: A Review

“In the beginning was the image, and the image was with God, and the image was God.” Of course, that’s not how it John 1:1 goes exactly, but considering how the visual image has replaced the written word it doesn’t sound so peculiar when aligned with today’s culture.

This veneration of the visual image is the subject of Arthur W. Hunt III’s book, The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World. I found the book to be very convicting both of the culture at large and myself. The thesis of the book is that Western Civilization has devolved from a word-based culture to an image based culture, now resembling many aspects of ancient pagan idolatry.

Hunt makes his case well, first giving a history how both word and image-based cultures developed. He highlights the medieval period’s “Dark Ages,” where literacy was held only by a select few and the general populace was more focused on imagery than words. Hunt contrasts this with the Reformation’s efforts to make the people literate once again by putting the Bible in the hands of the laity as well as setting up schools to be sure that people could read it.

The author goes on to illustrate how show business, among other things, has aided a gradual return to an image-centric culture. Postmodernism, which Hunt defines as “a rejection of rationality and an embrace of spectacle,” has set the scene for an image-based culture to gain even greater influence—and vice versa. While it’s not the most comprehensive definition of postmodernism (after all, “definition” is the chagrin of postmodernism), I do think that it is an accurate one. People who do not read are less likely to be able think rationally, and words lose their meaning. What is left for communication if not the image?

This book really hits home when Hunt speaks of some of the consequences of image-making. Citing Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 book, The Image, Hunt tells us:

“Americans not only confused the copy with the original, but that we actually preferred the copy to the original. News was no longer gathered, it was made. Gone were the days of the traveler, a word derived from travail. Instead we use the word tourist, a mere pleasure-seeker in a sea of fabricated attractions. We no longer have heroes, people known for their achievements. Instead, we have celebrities, persons known for their well-knownness.

The celebrity is, of course, the uber image of the day. Hunt’s thesis is difficult to dispute in light of the popularity of television shows like American Idol.

The Vanishing Word is not a “kill your television” manifesto, but it is an enlightening and convicting book that warns us to be wary of our devotion to images and to cling to the ultimate, written Word of God. Read it.