Apostolate in the Civilization of the Image

Could it be that inherent in our modern methods of communication, even in the structure of our language, there is a way of speaking, or a means of communication, that inhibits the Gospel message?

In the last few decades, the Church has been preoccupied with the condition of the world. It has sought to read the signs of the times and to interpret its precise ailments so that the Church might offer a custom cure. Following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI gave words to this impulse in Evangelii Nuntiandi (“Evangelization in the Modern World”, 1975), restating his remarks to the College of Cardinals, “‘The conditions of the society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man.’” He sensed incredulity in modern man and weakness in the Church’s message. He asks quite bluntly, “In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience?”

Four decades later, there is little disagreement that this energy has dissipated in modernity. Declining Church attendance in the Western world, rising secularization of society, a shortage of priests. The evidence is in. Pope Pius XII’s observation in his address Summi Pontificatus (1939) seems even more appropriate today: “What age has been, for all its technical and purely civic progress, more tormented than ours by spiritual emptiness and deep felt interior poverty?” One could be forgiven for thinking that Pius XII did not have a high opinion of this technical and civic progress. In fact, he also authored these words about modern media in Miranda Prorsus (1957), “We are deeply comforted by the knowledge that Our exhortations on this subject, and those of Our Predecessor, Pius XI, have had great influence in making motion pictures, radio, and television tend to summon men to pursue their spiritual perfection, and thus to promote God’s glory.”

An important word of caution

Evangelli Nuntiandi was Pope Paul VI’s attempt to come to grips with the paradox of the modern world’s impoverished spirituality in the light of its great promise. Though he devotes only a brief section to using mass media, he is bold to say that in mass media technology the Church finds “a modern and effective version of the pulpit.” This is tempered by a profound word of discretion, one that should frame every conversation about the New Evangelization:

Use of the means of social communication presents a challenge: through them the evangelical message should reach vast numbers of people, but with the capacity of piercing the conscience of each individual, of implanting itself in his heart, with all his most individual and personal qualities, and evoke an entirely personal adherence and commitment.

There is here a word of caution for those who would embrace the world’s promise – its technical promise – as a means to combat its spiritual illnesses. There is no doubt a relation between the two, it being equally likely that the former has exacerbated the latter.

This word of caution proceeds from many quarters, though it is often silenced and labeled derogatory. Joseph Ratzinger, in Introduction to Christianity (1969), notes that sharing the Gospel is especially difficult given that our language has been reduced to a “vehicle for the passing on of technical communication.” Could it be that inherent in our modern methods of communication, even in the structure of our language, there is a way of speaking, or a means of communication, that inhibits the Gospel message? The Catechism of the Catholic Church is careful to remind us that every tool has its own agenda: “It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications.”

The use of modern, technical means of communication is a bargain. These tools of communication have aims, and in exchange for their power, we must be willing to surrender something of our own. On first glance, their agenda is straightforward: to communicate with optimum speed and efficiency in order to reach the greatest number of people. This seems like a noble goal, especially when paired with the purity of the Gospel message. But what is lost in this exchange for a faster, more efficient transmission? What impact do these powerful instruments have on our message and our audience?

Faith comes by hearing

It may seem redundant to review, but the Gospel, the Good News, is a verbal message. In the modern era, that concept is affronted with challenge both within and without the Church. We live in a time when as Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “many psychologists and sociologists express the view that modern man has passed beyond the civilization of the word, which is now ineffective and useless, and that today he lives in the civilization of the image.”

Former president of Wheaton College (IL) A. Duane Litfin, author of Word vs. Deed (2012), pointed out the consequences of this shift: that many in the Church have suggested that we mute the word and amplify the image, and misquoting and misunderstanding St. Francis have said we must, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Taken literally, though, this is illogical. No one can communicate the message, for example, “Christ died for your sins to reconcile you with God” without words. Litfin contends that though it is possible to communicate how one feels about a subject without using words and it is also possible for one to communicate how one feels about his audience without using words, by definition one needs words to communicate a verbal message. What St. Francis was expressing was not that we need not preach, for he did that himself with great power and profundity. He meant that our lives need to conform to the message we preach.

Those outside the Church are also eager to clamp this verbal message. The social activism the world has been caught up in, as the plight of those in distant lands has come to light in the dawn of modernity, has been a hopeful sign and point of unity between the Church and the world. Even those hostile to the Gospel have seen a model in people like Mother Teresa. But the minute the Church proclaims the message along with the deed, its message is bitterly opposed as imperial and intolerant, Litfin observes. Mother Teresa received such a response following her address at the National Prayer Breakfast, when being celebrated for her charitable work, she boldly condemned abortion and begged for anyone considering such an act to entrust those children to her care.

On the other hand, images and actions are met with warmth and hospitality. It helps that as humans we have a natural attraction to images, an attraction that appeals to our curiosity and heightens it. The civilization of the image is a place where images prevail and impose their expression over and against the expression of the word. These are in conflict with one another, noted the late French philosopher Jacques Ellul in The Humiliation of the Word (1985), even to the degree that they have a different effect on our minds. The word requires rational interpretation and elicits a rational response. The image elicits an emotional response. When we see an image, wrote Ellul, we “grasp facts in an overall manner,” and therefore “understand all at once; [our] perception places [us] at the very heart of reality.” We see images of the twin towers burning on 9/11 and we are transported to that very moment. Words are needed in absence; for example, we tell stories of our travels to those back home, so that they might enter into the moments spent apart from them.

But with images, Ellul argues “there is no longer any distance between subject and object” and thus, with images, “I am not truly independent; I cannot really take my distance from those objects, from the intellectual point of view, this means I cannot really exercise my critical faculties.” Modern advertising thrives on this concept. It is the reason professional athletes appear in clothing commercials. The audience does not take the time to reflect and conclude that a basketball player’s clothing has nothing to do with his success (and by extension theirs) because they are captured by the immediacy of the association.

To those immersed in images, reasoning becomes more difficult, to the point that words seem empty in contrast to living images, according to Ellul. It is reason St. Paul uses to engage the Areopagites in Acts 17, and reason that St. Peter expects us to employ with unbelievers in explaining the hope that is in us, in the third chapter of his first epistle. Certainly, faith cannot be reduced to rational assent; but reason brings experience to us without relying on the emotional response. Faith comes by hearing, not by seeing; and so to devalue the word is to make faith scarce.

Media deluged and individualistic

The image-oriented person, the media-deluged man, is not simply hostile to the word; he is hostile to community. Pope Pius XII’s statement in Miranda Prorsus that “It is one of television’s advantages that it induces both old and young to remain at home; it can have, as a result, considerable influence in strengthening the bonds of loyalty and love within the family circle…” seems comical in light of post-millennial culture. The sheer number of choices we have when watching TV, and the control these technologies give us, have led to disintegration of the family. Now there is a TV in every room so we can each watch what we want. The family record player or stereo has been replaced with individual MP3 players – meaning one can listen to what he wants without anyone else listening, and without having to listen to anything around him. The family phone has been replaced by the personal cell phone. In each of these cases, the vigor of the individual, in opposition to the vigor of the family or community, has increased. These technologies bridge time and space, reaching many people far and wide – but not reaching them together. We are more separate than ever because we are more independent than ever.

I say “media deluged” because it is almost impossible now not to be assaulted with images and messages on TVs and PCs and radios everywhere. Pumping gas, waiting in the grocery line, working, there is a steady stream of music and images pounding at the doors of our consciousness. And we don’t mind. We don’t mind because it soothes the momentary pain of waiting in line, or on the phone waiting to make an appointment, or waiting for our gas to pump. It soothes us and distracts us from the labor of living.

Before this flood of images hit modern man, the Church anticipated the problems that he might incur from constant distraction. It has a word for our permanent state of distraction: acedia, or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. On acedia, the esteemed doctor of the Church St. Thomas says in his Summa Theologiae: “Since no one can be a long time in company with what is painful and unpleasant, one shuns whatever causes sorrow and passes on to what gives pleasure. Thus, those who find no joy in spiritual pleasures, have recourse to pleasures of the body. This tendency to wander, if it is found (1) in the intellect rushing after various things without purpose is called ‘uneasiness of the mind’; (2) in the imagination, it is called ‘curiosity’; (3) in speech it is called excessive wordiness, and (4) if in body, it is called restlessness.”

Are these not descriptive of our age? Are these not the challenges educators mention with regularity and doctors medicate habitually? We are so restless, it doesn’t occur to us. Restlessness has a deceptive quality in that way; we move so often, we never see that we are in motion, never missing what we moved from.

Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life (2008), gets at the heart of acedia: “At its Greek root, acedia [sic] means the absence of care…When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine…That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care [sic] derives from an Indo-European word meaning ‘to cry out,’ as in lament.” She remarks that acedia has a particular aversion to the repetitions of daily life. Like prayer. Like reflection. In her words the cardinal flaw of relying on modern media for expressing the Gospel becomes apparent – not just that it alters the message, but that it conditions us to be less receptive to its penetrating light.

The acedia we share with our age conditions us to hate labor. When presented with the option, we choose an email over a handwritten letter. Nonetheless, most of us recognize the difference between the two. When the letter is sent to us, we associate it with care, with love. In lamenting our multimedia with a description true of technology itself, Mark Helprin, author of Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto (2009) writes, “It endeavors to do the integrative work that used to be the province of the intellect … It removes as far as it possibly can the element of labor from learning.” Without labor, there is no love. Love’s labor’s offspring. We would do well to remember that God could have redeemed the world with a spoken word, but he chose to nail The Word to the wood of the cross.

The power of the Gospel

It should be clear to those who unplug and step out of the stream that the hidden energy of the Gospel is not hiding in powerful technical instruments capable of proclaiming it to the world. There is power in these instruments no doubt. Our modern means of communication are truly a new window of power, but this power is purchased at a hefty price as Helprin notes: “Whenever man opens a new window of power he imagines he can do without the careful separations, distinctions, and determinations mandated by the facts of his existence and his mortal limitations.” The hidden energy of the Gospel is in the message itself, in its call to surrender, to limitation, to self-sacrificial love in Christ. St. Paul says as much in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans when he proclaims, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”When we accept the Gospel, we depend on Christ. When we surrender to this new window of power, we are liable to accept the illusion that we depend on no one. Though our message and these means need not be considered antitheses, they are by definition in tension with one another.

In the economy of the rosary, the proclamation of the gospel is the third luminous mystery, and in its light, the task of the New Evangelization must be led. We cannot uncritically embrace these means and their agendas, if we expect the energy of the Gospel to be revealed in its power. Instead, we must recall the message we preach, and let it shape our means of communication and interaction with the world. Woe to us if we do not preach the Gospel. Woe to us if we abandon its verbal proclamation. Woe to us if we relegate it to online forums, Twitter feeds, and Youtube videos, to be sowed primarily among the trivial memes of our day; if we lower it to abstract expression, dilute its radical character of sacrifice and labor. Woe to the world if this message does not, as Pope Paul VI warn us in Evangelli Nuntiandi, “pierce the conscience of each individual…[evoking] entirely personal adherence and commitment.”

The Gospel is a call to an entirely different way of life in the world. It is simultaneously a rebuke of modern man, and a genuine word of encouragement to him. Let this be clear: modern man is not enamored by houses of worship that look like theaters, to hip presentations, to media savviness and eloquence. He is thirsty. Pope Paul VI’s words are even more accurate today: “It is often said nowadays that the present century thirsts for authenticity.” He is not thirsty for the water that every man drinks, the water that looks and tastes like his; he is thirsty for that simple drink, and he knocks endlessly in search of it. For, as many have noted, “the man who knocks at the brothel door, knocks for God.” He knocks for power and wonder and profound, everlasting joy; goods that the world promises in abundance and, like our adversary, presents to us in counterfeit form. The true power is humility, the true wonder the cross, the true joy Christ alone. May we draw our fellow man into the freedom of our community, to the well of grace, and give him this cup of water in Christ’s name.

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About David Warren 0 Articles
David Warren is a lay catechist at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Naperville, IL.