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Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination
Author: Brian Godawa
Brian Godawa begins his book Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination by describing a kind of Christian that I know very well, a kind of Christian that many of us probably know very well. This person has a love for apologetics and philosophy and can hammer home a theological argument with speed and dexterity. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and can quote large sections of it from memory. He is familiar with the latest archeological evidence that supports the veracity of Scripture and knows his logical fallacies backwards and forwards. He knows every argument in support of Creation over Evolution and can poke rational holes in every other world religion besides Christianity. You do not want to get into a battle of wits with this guy; he will win, every time. This guy was, in fact, Godawa himself. He describes himself as the “Muhammad Ali of apologetics: Trample like and elephant, sting like a hive of killer bees” (18). But eventually, Godawa realized an important truth: “I eventually learned that winning an argument is not always the same as persuasion; you can win the battle of debate but lose the war for a soul. I started to sense that my approach to apologetics and theology was becoming dehumanizing. I was treating the human being before me as a mere carrier of a set of irrational beliefs that it was my purpose to dismantle into absurdity – all in the cause of ‘leading every thought captive to Christ. As much as I would claim that the Bible was my ultimate authority, I would be more focused on logical discourse and rational inquiry than on truth in its fullness of manifestation in the person of Jesus Christ” (18, italics Godawa’s). What Godawa came to understand was that in his love for reason, rational apologetics and logic, he had become “logocentric” or focused only on words, while at the same time devaluing images, emotions, and the imagination. His book is an exploration of the role of words and images in the Christian life, and their interaction with this biblical truth: “we are not disembodied intellects, we are enfleshed spirit [sic] that includes intellect but is not reducible to it. Our faith is not merely an abstract philosophy or mental assent to doctrinal propositions, it is first and foremost a covenanted relationship with the person of God” (20).
Godawa makes a convincing argument that the Christian dichotomy between words and images came out of a response to Enlightenment (and eventually Modernist) thinking which placed so much emphasis on science and reason as the only legitimate ways of knowing truth. In response to a culture that no longer lived “by faith”, Christians began to try to use scientific and logical tools to justify their beliefs, and this virtually eliminated images, which rely on emotions and imagination. The Reformation also impacted Christians’ views of images because of its key doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and its intense distrust of Catholicism’s use of art and ornamentation. Ironically enough, however, it was the Reformation’s emphasis on the sacredness of all things which would allow Dutch artists like Rembrandt to paint masterpieces of ordinary people and landscapes, and Godawa points out that “the false separation of the senses leads to a matter-spirit dualism in some Reformed theology that reflects the very secular-sacred dichotomy that reformers debunked” (92).
Word Pictures also examines how image-laden our Scriptures really are, and the implications of the doctrine of the incarnation, stating that “Jesus as the incarnate Word is not a self-evident axiom or timeless principle of reason. He is not reducible to propositional syllogisms. At the heart of Christianity is not merely a philosophy or worldview but an incarnate person. Christian theology should maintain an equal ultimacy of both word and image because at the core of our faith is this equal ultimacy in the incarnation: Word made flesh” (102). Ultimately, Godawa advocates for a renewal of Christians’ use of and trust in images as apologetic tools, and for the prayerful and artistic subverting of our culture’s images toward our own ends. “[I]n a postmodern world focused on narrative discourse, we need to take a lesson from the apostle Paul and expand our avenues for evangelism and defending the faith. We need more Christian apologists writing revisionist biographies of Darwin, Marx and Freud; writing for and subverting pagan TV sitcoms; bringing a Christian worldview to their journalism in secular magazines and news reporting; making horror films that undermine the idol of modernity; playing subversive industrial, rock and rap music. We need to be actively, sacredly subverting the secular stories of the culture, and restoring their fragmented narratives for Christ. If it was good enough for the apostle Paul on top of Mars Hill, then it’s certainly good enough for those of us in the shade of the Hollywood hills now”(138,9).
Word Pictures is a book that takes the importance of images quite seriously, even in its physical design. The pages are packed with pictures and each chapter is printed in a different font, in an attempt to “incarnate the unique theme of each chapter within the text itself -- a modern font for the chapter on modernity, an antique font for the historical chapter on the Reformation and so on” (8,9). The book is also extraordinarily well-researched and cites many scholarly works in its footnotes.
Godawa’s arguments are persuasive and intriguing, but the book as a whole would have benefited from more attention to detail. In several chapters he seems to loose focus and concentrate on information that doesn’t seem directly relevant to his point. He spends almost an entire chapter examining Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, for example, which is interesting from an apologetic standpoint, but seems to stray away from his original point about images. He also spends a great deal of time on the topic of cultural subversion and its importance, but very little time on practical ways Christians can use images to do that (aside from referencing a few books and movies). I would have appreciated more real-life examples of modern Christian images and image-makers. Also, it would have been helpful for Godawa to include some reflections on the critique and assessment of images, as many of us are schooled in recognizing logical fallacies when we see them, but less able to interpret subjective images. (And as a side note: this book had many typographical errors that were so numerous as to become distracting to my engagement with the book itself.)
I definitely know the kind of Christian that Godawa describes himself as being at the beginning of the book. I have been pinned at the sharp end of his sword and felt dehumanized and trampled, rather than lovingly shown the error of my thinking. I have also played the part of the sword-wielder, eager to prove my intellectual prowess through logical argument, rather than really taking the time to persuade and convince my listener through story, picture, and image. Word Pictures is a good reminder of the truth that “God is bigger than rationality, bigger than imagination, and he is Lord of both” (189).