When I lived in New Orleans, I knew a retired advertising executive, Phil Preddy, who travelled the world volunteering to paint murals in church baptisteries. For those of you who aren’t low-church Baptists, it is common in churches that practice believer’s baptism to decorate the sanctuary’s baptismal pool with a mural depicting the Jordan River, evoking an image of Christ’s baptism. Mr. Preddy’s art was an outstanding example of a layman’s integration of a call to service with profession / talents.
Over the years, I’ve seen amazing folk-art baptistery murals. My favorite one has to be in a tiny country church in South Mississippi (the home turf of the inimitable Russ Moore and yours truly) where the Jordan River valley looked just like the creek meadow next to the church, right down to the twelve-point buck standing in the tall grass!
We evangelicals are notoriously iconoclastic and outside of the church nursery, paintings and other visual artwork are all but absent. Our churches are oddly industrial and non-descript, with blank walls aplenty and open spaces left empty of anything but the occasional gospel tract rack or a lost-Bible table or two.
As many have noted, though, our society is increasingly a post-literate society. We have widespread literacy, but most folks would rather gain their information from visual modes of communication. The ramifications for the church are manifold, as “word” is subverted by “image.”
As a literature professor, this troubles me, of course, as it smacks of an intentional kind of short-sighted ignorance. Mark Twain once noted that there is little difference between those cannot read and those who choose not to read. There is little difference, then, between a society that is pre-literate and one that is post-literate. I think that Christians should be at the forefront of efforts to retain a rightful emphasis on literacy and the primacy of the written word.
Having said that, though, the American church must also find innovative ways to communicate the Gospel to those who are post-literate; to do so, we need only to look back to pre-literate Christianity. As cultures have moved from orality to literacy and, now, to mediacracy (to coin a term), we need to remember the strong connections between “logos” and “eikon / imago” in the context of a Christ-centered Gospel: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15). For two millennia the church has employed stories and visual images to communicate the Gospel. We must move beyond the murals of the baptistery and the nursery and rediscover the biblical power of imagery, including reclaiming the fecundity of the visual arts tradition that we have allowed to decline in the wake of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rational, literate discourse.