Why calling something idolatry is not ‘soft-pedalling’ on sin; and how idolatry is breath-takingly dangerous

I’m an asthmatic. For most of my life I’ve managed to mostly ignore this, except when exercising in winter, but lately, my asthma has been worse than in the past and I’ve found myself with a preventer — when I remember to take it, things go well for me, when I don’t, well, there’s nothing worse than feeling breathless and scrounging around the house looking for the ventolin inhaler my kids have hidden somewhere. That sense of not being able to breathe is oppressive, and scary, and has me considering the shortness of my breath not just in the moment (when it comes to lung capacity), but in my finitude — I have a limited number of breaths I will take with these lungs before I expire. And asthma — the disordered restriction of those airways — means that some of my breathing is more breathless than it should be; and that those breaths in particular serve as a reminder of my mortality.

When I’m wheezing and spluttering and trying to breath what I need is ventolin. I can definitely reduce the impact of my asthma on my life by taking preventative measures like being healthy. But in that moment of breathlessness; if all you do is hold up a picture of healthy airways and tell me I should do all in my power to have those, I’ll still expire. And you’ll be a massive jerk; especially if you have some ventolin in your back pocket.

In the fallout of a controversial recent post it has been suggested that the framework I’ve put forward for speaking about sexuality in the modern world — that it’s a form of idolatry — is ‘soft pedalling’ when it comes to calling sin “sin”.

I disagree.

The Bible, from start to finish, is pretty sure that idolatry is deadly and destructive — the most deadly and destructive sin — and I’d argue that it sees most sinful actions as a result of an idolatrous disposition. It even gets the top two spots in the ten commandments.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. — Exodus 20:3-6

I’ve written stacks of stuff about how when Genesis says we’re made in the image of God, this uses a word used elsewhere (in the ancient world) for ‘idol statue’ — and our job is to be the living, breathing representatives of God in his world, which is what makes idolatry a particular inversion of the created order where we, as Paul puts it in Romans, worship the creation instead of the creator; this represents a disordering of the natural world — we were meant to rule the world with God, and instead are being ruled by it. The second commandment is a big deal because breaking it turns the created order on its head. As we live in disobedience to this command we’re actually living against the ‘created order’ — our order-bringing mission in the world — which disorders the world, and us. This disordering involves, as Augustine would put it, a ‘disordering of our loves’ — if we were made to chiefly love and worship God, and rule over the creation, but put created things in the God slot in our hearts, we end up living lives that are not optimal but destructive. Or to use the flourishing language that picks up the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command in Genesis 1, we live lives that are not fruitful, and instead spread death. When I say something is idolatry I’m not backing away from saying something is sinful, I’m diagnosing something as terminal, using the same diagnosis the Bible gives. But this diagnosis comes with a particular treatment (as I’ll suggest right at the bottom of this post).

A lot of the debate around changes to the definition of marriage, because they misdiagnose the problem (in my opinion), miss the solution. Lots of people in my theological camp — those who hold Reformed convictions about God and the world — talk about ‘creation ordinances’ — things that God instituted for ‘all people’ not just ‘his people’ ‘in the beginning’ — before people rejected him and the world was cursed — that last beyond that curse (typically largely undamaged by it and still accessible and good for all people). These ‘creation ordinances’ typically are listed as marriage and multiplication, work and dominion, and the sabbath. These are part of how ‘God has ordered the world’ for all people; a sort of ‘natural law’ that should be apparent for everybody.

These ‘creation ordinances’ are often linked to the concept of ‘common grace‘ (wikipedia); they’re part of how God continues to bless all people, and they become the basis Christians in this framework use to assess the work of governments; whose role relates to common grace as they ‘restrain evil’ and who are not just meant to restrain bad things but uphold these basic universal goods.

It’s interesting to consider how far our culture has departed from work and dominion, and from sabbath, and how little we made a fuss about those changes (and other changes to marriage — like no fault divorce) when considering how stridently we argue for marriage now… the onus now seems to be on those who suggest these ordinances are undamaged by the fall to demonstrate how this is the case (not just insist it is), or we need a different model for explaining the world (and the Biblical data).

Now. I have some issues with this basic framework as it has been applied — because I think it misses a couple of important and foundational ‘creation ordinances’ that humanity departs from as soon as we’re given the opportunity; and because we walk away from these, I think this gives us a framework for understanding why humans (individuals, cultures, and governments) walk away from the others; and what is required to have people walk back. I also think these particular commands — pre-fall — are particularly connected to our telos or purpose as humans, and that post fall they are frustrated rather than ongoing; that ‘work’ was meant to be the work of extending the garden of Eden — as the place God dwelled with humanity (like the Temple) — over the face of the earth; that ‘sabbath’ was meant to be the enjoyment of rest with God in this expanding garden, and that marriage was to reflect the image of God in a one-flesh union ‘male and female’; and that multiplication was the multiplication of living breathing images of God who would represent him in his ‘temple-kingdom’ as it spread. Nature is oriented towards a certain function, and that function is broken by sin. So, for example, I see these functions being recaptured in the church — the cultural mandate becomes the Great commission (which sees the ‘temple-kingdom’ of the Church — people with the Spirit — spreading around the globe).

But let’s work with this category of ‘creation ordinances’ being the ongoing things that God gives to all people for our universal good. I think the list is missing a few, and here’s the two things I’d say God gives to all humans that are, perhaps, bigger and more vital to our humanity than those other things held to be ordinances — ‘image bearing’ and ‘breath’. These are two concepts that Christians have used politically in very similar ways to the others — in upholding the sanctity of human life — and they are certainly universal. But they are also closely tied to our created purpose in the world; the other creation ordinances, and those two commandments quoted above.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7

If these are not ‘creation ordinances’ — that are true for all people of all time — then I’m not sure that ‘creation ordinance’ is a valid category.

They’re also concepts the prophets return to as they call God’s people back from idolatry (and arguably at the heart of how Israel is meant to be a blessing to the nations — who share these realities — as they call those nations away from idolatry and to life in God.

Because here’s the thing. Idolatry distorts these creation ordinances. Idolatry literally takes your breath away. It is worse than asthma. It is deadly. And Idolatry deforms us as we are conformed into the image of the images (or other gods) we worship. Idolatry is the gradual process of eradicating God’s image in our lives and replacing it with an idol — a process that is complete when we become breathless.

Consider, for a moment, how the Bible speaks of idolatry distorting work, or the ‘cultural mandate’ — to take the good things God has made and create with them; Genesis 2 speaks of the gold in Eden; look what Isaiah says about those who fashion idols from silver and gold.

With whom, then, will you compare God?
    To what image will you liken him?
 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and fashions silver chains for it.
 A person too poor to present such an offering
    selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
    to set up an idol that will not topple. — Isaiah 40:18-20

“Tell us, you idols,
    what is going to happen.
Tell us what the former things were,
    so that we may consider them
    and know their final outcome.
Or declare to us the things to come,
     tell us what the future holds,
    so we may know that you are gods.
Do something, whether good or bad,
    so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.
 But you are less than nothing
    and your works are utterly worthless;
    whoever chooses you is detestable. — Isaiah 41:22-24

All who make idols are nothing,
    and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
    they are ignorant, to their own shame.
 Who shapes a god and casts an idol,
    which can profit nothing?
People who do that will be put to shame;
    such craftsmen are only human beings.
Let them all come together and take their stand;
    they will be brought down to terror and shame. — Isaiah 44:9-11

This is maybe my favourite bit of this extended treatment of how idolatry is fundamentally a departure from not just the creator but these created ordinances, talking about the craftsman who cuts a block of wood in half and uses one half to make an idol and the other as kindling to cook his food:

Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
    he cannot save himself, or say,
    “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”” — Isaiah 44:20

It’s not just Isaiah either…

Everyone is senseless and without knowledge;
    every goldsmith is shamed by his idols.
The images he makes are a fraud;
    they have no breath in them. — Jeremiah 10:14

The thing is; the Old Testament consistently says the product of idolatry is that we become what we worship. And when we worship breathless and dead gods, rather than the living, breathing, God, we become breathless. 

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
    nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.— Psalm 135:15-18

Here’s where ‘common grace’ kicks in — for as long as we’re still living and breathing we’re still, in some capacity, representing the God who made us — whether we like it or not — but our idolatry means we’re hurtling towards breathlessness as we hurtle away from the ‘creation ordinance’ of life representing God and ruling over creation (because we’ve made created things our God). And this life and breath is still a good gift from God — a ‘common’ gift to all people.

This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,

    who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
    who gives breath to its people,
    and life to those who walk on it. — Isaiah 42:5

Ultimately it’s idolatry that takes us to death as its natural end… it takes breath away, and it takes our bearing the image of the living, breathing, God away. It changes the way we work and rest. Why should it not also threaten how a culture understands marriage and multiplication? At some point in this trajectory from living and breathing and bearing God’s image a person — be they an idol maker, or idol worshipper — sees God’s common grace to them overcome by the effects of their sin and idolatry. This seems to be also true of cultures. At some point, culturally, a shared idol distorts us or deforms us away from the image of God and into the image of a culture’s gods; at some point our shared loves created by cultural stories disorder our loves so that we don’t love God as we were made to and as the Bible commands. The cultures in the Old Testament that were idolatrous were led by kings who were basically the ‘popes’ of their idol cults — who were also held to be ‘the image of god’ in their cultures. Idolatry happens corporately and culturally, and typically around narratives about what a god is and what they require and provide. Common grace is held in tension with the sort of temporal judgment for idolatry Paul speaks about in Romans 1 — where we no longer see the natural as natural — or with what has been called the ‘noetic effect‘ of sin.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21

Here’s how I understand the logic of this passage — God’s invisible qualities should be clearly seen from creation — creation ordinances are relatively logically clear and embedded in nature itself; but oriented towards us knowing God. When we deliberately choose not to know God, culturally or individually, we’re no longer able to see these obvious connections — our thinking and loves — our minds and our hearts — are darkened or ‘disordered’ — and this is ultimately an act of judgment from God. Our breathlessness starts now; the process of becoming what we worship starts now. God gives us what we want. And the result is that we individually and corporately start walking away from life-giving, common grace producing  ‘creation ordinances’ and towards death and destruction.

Another way of framing this might be ‘how much uncommon grace is required to pull someone back to knowing and worshipping God’? And then ‘how do we do this’? We’ll get there below. Before we do, there’s a pretty compelling account of how the noetic effect changes the way we see some good things God has made (like moral ordering of the universe) in a different degree to how we see others (like the logical ordering of the universe — eg mathematics) in this paper on how sin effects scholarship; I think it’s worth grappling with that paper and at least seeing that common grace and the noetic effect are held in tension. I’ve written elsewhere how because of the ‘subjectivity’ created by sin and idolatry (following this model), marriage might be more like music than mathematics.

It seems to me that from the limited survey of some Biblical gear above that it is reasonable to conclude that sin changes our ability to know and worship God — it pulls us away not just from the creator but from the ‘creation ordinances’ in their pre-fall state — even if those things are all still good and provide ‘common grace’ benefits to people as a part of what it means for us to be human. The questions for us with this data are: how much is this effect corporate, not just individual? And at what point does the ‘noetic effect’ of sin eclipse common grace in a culture (or an individual)?

At some point we need to be able to account for why it is that the people in our culture are so happy to redefine a ‘creation ordinance’ if the category of creation ordinance is going to have any valid descriptive power when it comes to life in this world. As well as accounting for why our world seems to be departing from these creation ordinances, we probably need to better account for why it’s people who believe in a creator who seem to be less likely to do this (why is the coalition for marriage just a bunch of religious leaders?). It’s not just that these communities are more sold on history or biology. It’s not just that theism comes with an orientation towards the ‘classical view’ of the world; we have to account for why others don’t buy this. I think the answer that best accounts for and describes this reality is idolatry. That’s the diagnosis. It’s serious. And it’s terminal if not properly treated.

Let me be unequivocal in not ‘soft-pedalling’…

The Bible says that marriage is created by God as a ‘one flesh’ relationship between one man and one woman. This ‘one flesh’ relationship is sexual, but also unitive in that it forges a single identity unit of ‘two-persons-as-one’. It is part of how such a man and woman then bear the image of God, and marriage is part of how we humans were to fulfil the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — this isn’t to say that every person has to be married to bear the image of God, or contribute to fruitfulness, or even that children are the ‘purpose’ of marriage or having children its essence.

This is God’s design for humanity and is part of what a truly flourishing society is built on. To depart from this design is sin.

That we have walked away from God’s design for sex and marriage is a result of sin. The deadly sin of idolatry where we’ve, as a culture, decided to worship sex (a created thing); and see the flourishing human life as being connected to love and sex — and so marriage — rather than being connected to God. This is idolatry — it’s not just our gay neighbours who do this (and it’s not just outside the church); this is a culture wide decision to live in a different story and to put a ‘created thing’ as an ultimate good. Part of the problem with how the church speaks about this is that we’re so complicit with the idolatry of sex and marriage — the idea that these are necessary for human flourishing — that it sounds like we’re actually denying a thing we think of as god (or an ultimate good) to others. When we extol the virtues of marriage and family in idolatrous terms — as though they truly satisfy — and then deny them to people who are different to us, we do not sound loving. This is part of why talking about Jesus in this conversation about marriage and sex is not just window dressing…

This sin, or idolatry, is deadly in that it pulls us away from bearing God’s image as it forms us according to a different image or vision of the good and flourishing life. This is why our culture has walked away from God’s design for marriage. We’re pursuing a different God, or ultimate good. Once we, as a culture, pursue that good it makes sense to afford the ‘good’ of marriage to any one of our neighbours who is living in this story or according to this vision.

If what the Bible says about idolatry is true then this is deadly. It’s not soft-pedalling on sin to call the push for same sex marriage a ‘religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ thing; but like any doctor delivering a fatal prognosis our bedside manner is important. Especially if there is a cure and a treatment plan…

At some point sin means our ‘breath’ is more like the breath of an asthmatic on the way to a fatal asthma attack than like a human with a healthy set of lungs — or like the lungs of somebody who has deliberately set out to reduce their capacity by unhealthy living or smoking. When I’m in a state of breathlessness, panicking as I open every drawer in the house looking for an inhaler, I don’t just need to picture what my lungs should be without this disorder. We don’t treat an asthmatic or someone with asbestosis or mesothelioma by showing them a picture of healthy lungs — creation ordinances — and telling them to jump back to living that way; we treat disordered lungs by fixing the disorder, or with a lung transplant.

We respond to idolatry — disordered love — with the Gospel of Jesus, which re-orders our love for God, others, ourselves, and the world.

God restores breath to breathless lungs, and restores his image in us, by the Spirit as it conforms us to the image of Jesus.

Without this intervention we’re holding up a picture of healthy lungs to an asthmatic as they suffocate to death.

I’ll unpack more of this in part 2.

Book Review: TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age

This is the book I would write about how we think about media as Christians if I was going to write a book about how we think about and use media as Christians.

It is exceptional, and if you have any respect for how I’ve approached this sort of topic on this blog over the past however many years I’ve been banging on about this stuff – you should stop reading this review and buy the book, its title, in full, is: TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age.

I’m glad Andy Byers has written it for me, and for others. I will be effusive in my praise of this book (though I think there are definitely stones left unturned should I ever actually want to write a book). I will praise it to the hills because I believe it is essential reading for Christians who want to take the Gospel into new mediums using new technologies with a strong theological foundation.

It is methodologically sensible, theologically invigorating, and practically stimulating. It is the best book on thinking about the intersection of theology and media studies that I have read, and I have read all the others. Well. Maybe not all the others. But lots.

Like any book – this one should be assessed on its own terms. So Byers says:

“The conviction underlying this book is that Christian scripture is not only the best source for understanding Jesus but also the best source for understanding Google.”

And later…

“This book is a hermeneutical project in the church’s wider efforts of trying to understand the technological mediascape of the twenty-first century. The purpose is not to offer a how-to guidebook to help churches incorporate communications technology into their worship and witness. I am hoping to provide something more foundational. The point is to make some headway in constructing a theological frame of reference for understanding and appropriating media in the digital age and in the ages to come.”

His argument is:

“First: if God himself creates and employs media, then there must be a theological logic that can guide how we produce and use media and communications technology today. Here is the second claim: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God—TheoMedia, the communicative and revelatory means God employs to share himself and to influence humankind as his image bearers.”

His treatment of the unfolding Biblical saga is exceptional, and the touch points he selects and unpacks in this story are spectacular. His definition of media is broad – anything that is a “means to communicate” – and that is how I think it should be. Just about every ‘thing’ can function as media. His definition of TheoMedia is equally broad.

“… although there is such a thing as “new media,” the actual concept of media is as old as the hills. This is true literally, because the hills themselves are a form of media. God’s media. Or, we could say, “TheoMedia.” Media production began with God. The aesthetic media of God’s creation was produced by another form of divine media. The slope of the valleys and the rise of hills beneath glorious sky blue all came about through the medium of holy speech. Divine words addressed the primordial cosmic blankness, and ever since “let there be…” sounded in the dark, creation has served as a means of divine revelation and divine self-communication.”

I’m increasingly convinced that something akin to media studies is vital for good exegesis – knowing how a type of text functioned in its context is as important for interpretation as figuring out how the content of the text would have been understood in its context – indeed, you can’t do one without the other. I love how Byer’s approach to the question of media is driven by Biblical Theology – by unpacking how the media of God develops over the trajectories of the Biblical story.

“So to retrain what we think about “media,” we are going to make a pilgrimage of sorts throughout the entire biblical saga, tracing the narrative plotlines of the epic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-Creation to show that the idea of media is a central theme of the church’s most sacred text.”

His understanding of this story is Christ centred, so his conclusions are also Christological, which, again, I think makes this book a must read.

The Good

I’m especially thrilled at his anthropology – his understanding of the role communication plays in what it means to be human. It’s all about humans being made in the image of God. More than any other work in this area, Byers gets that bearing an image involves communication (I’m pretty passionate about this).

“The most fundamental vocation of humanity is a media vocation, that of divine image bearing. Though the rest of creation reflects divine glory and beauty, Adam and Eve were endowed with an even more intrinsic capacity for conveying God’s character and intentions in the world.”

Byer’s description of how sin smashed this function, and how it is ultimately dealt with, and restored for us, in and through Jesus, is great. It is the theological basis for our participation in media use.

“Originally destined as the bearers of God’s image in the world, humanity—both Gentile and Jewish—had become shaped by the world’s unwholesome images and untruthful words. The once uninterrupted interaction with God was now clouded; the transmission was lost in the distracting white noise of worldly media. Such a disastrous media situation required a media “eucatastrophe,” to borrow a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien. That media “eucatastrophe” (an event of catastrophically good proportions) finally took place. It was the Incarnation. The TheoMedium of God’s Word became flesh. The public announcement of what Jesus has done on our behalf as the God who took on flesh is called “gospel.” It is a media term. In the genre of a eucatastrophic newsflash, the TheoMedium of the gospel is the breaking news that our King has arrived and conquered, that the mediated distance between humanity and God is to be bridged through the work of the Incarnate Christ, a new Mediator who has come from offstage as abruptly as that serpent of old. And this Mediator is hailed as the untainted “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15)… In the wake of bloodied cross and vacated tomb, a new TheoMedium was formed. Indwelled by the Spirit, that society we call “church” was created as a new TheoMedium in the world in the sense that we as the church are now being restored as bearers of God’s image.”

Byer’s is sensitive to the function of images in the Ancient Near East – a big part of my Masters Thesis, so very exciting for me. In the Ancient Near East kings held on to political power by building images of themselves as gods, fusing the royal with the divine – such imagery (which was later applied to coins and all sorts of multi-media) functioned as a powerful communication tool. Images of God-Kings communicated just by being. So did idols in a temple – which were ‘activated’ by a mouth washing ceremony by a river in a temple so that they would ‘speak for’ the god (just like Adam in Eden in Genesis 2 if you buy the theory that Eden is a proto-temple).

These images communicated something – by being representatives of the god-king. Byers shares this quote:

“Social space—the areas in which life was lived—for pagans was thus in a sense alive with images, mythologized. The statues in the temples and around the cities, the reliefs on the altars, the busts and statuettes of the home, etc. all, with varying degrees of intensity to be sure, figured the divine or, better for ancient polytheism, the divinities. The notion of a secular, separate realm devoid of religious penetration is of course a modern invention (if not itself a fiction). For ancient pagans, space was religious.” — KAVIN ROWE

But these images of god-kings and gods didn’t speak – nor did the gods behind the purely religious images. Image bearers of the God who does speak also speak, but we also communicate by being representatives of God, scattered around his world. Byers notes – from Israel’s history – that the media we soak ourselves in will end up shaping us.

“Choosing God’s words crafts us into a certain type of person. Choosing idolatry turns us into a vastly different sort of person. Media preferences alter who we are. Moses finds this painful story of the stone words and the metal calf to be gravely instructive for the Israelites who are about to make their fateful river crossing. They are a people shaped by certain media that cannot abide certain other types of media. The program of Canaan’s media displacement must therefore begin immediately. Hence the charge to physically mark their entry into Canaan with those plastered rocks. Think of the contrast in media form and content that will instantly take place once God’s people set foot onto their new land. Rather than images carefully crafted through metallurgy and woodworking, Israel will pile up twelve rocks and cover them with script. Stone words.”

We communicate by doing – but as people made in the image of the God who speaks, we represent him best when we bear his image (in what we do) and we use words. We need words to truly bear God’s image. Because God speaks. That’s what gives words priority. But words can never be separated from how they are delivered. This slight distinction plays out in Byer’s application – which seeks to resolve what I think should be a dichotomous tension – suggesting that TheoMedia makes words a priority. This is probably the only weakness I see in TheoMedia, and one of the coolest things about the Christian bookosphere overlapping with the Christian blogosphere is that we’ve been able to chat about my questions over email. I love that. It makes reading books so much more relationally connected.

Byer urges Christians to learn from the way God dealt with an increasingly complex media landscape for Israel – who were confronted by images (idols and temples) wherever they looked as they left Egypt and fought their way to the Promised Land. So he sees the shema as profoundly important. The idea that in a media saturated world we should spend our time soaking ourselves in God’s media, in order to approach other media from a more healthy perspective.

Here’s what he says about the shema…

“The words of God were to saturate the daily grind of the Israelite family. They were to feature orally in conversations in the fields and in the home. Bound to the hand, stuck between the eyes, and emblazoned on the entranceways of the home, the TheoMedia of God’s words were also to occupy the visual space of God’s people. In a world rife with unauthorized media sources, the Israelites were commanded to esteem their God as their primary media source, holding fast to the TheoMedia of divine words, embracing a life saturated by holy speech.”

And later…

“The greatest commandment in scripture—the highest demand on our lives—encourages a set of media practices by which our lives are saturated with verbal TheoMedia. The Shema should be recognized as a central text as the church negotiates twenty-first-century media. It is a passage that reminds Christians in the digital age and every age that we are called to media saturation, but the media that are to so thoroughly permeate every dimension of our lives are the media of God.”

Byers argues that we should prioritise ‘word’ media over all other forms – in part on the basis of the Shema, but because he’s serious about Biblical Theology this is a thread he carries through into the New Testament (more below).

“If oral and textual TheoMedia are indeed prioritized, then it is incumbent on us to retain and strengthen the skills of hearing and reading. If the burden of the previous chapters on the sights and sounds of God was to argue that TheoMedia are various and multisensory, the burden of this chapter and the next is to show that they are subordinate to logocentric media, that is, the word-oriented media of prophetic discourse and holy text.”

But first – my slight critique.

Words never occur in a vacuum – they always come with the context provided by the speaker – even in creation itself, when God spoke into the void (arguably, literally, a vacuum) – it was who was speaking that made stuff happen.

Byers is well aware of the trouble with dichotomies – he spends significant time showing that there’s often a false dichotomy presented between the idea that Scripture functions propositionally vis a vis narratively, when it should be both, held in tension.

When it comes to the verbal v visual dichotomy he acknowledges the multimedia nature of God, so he’s already pretty nuanced in his approach to the dichotomy, I just don’t think he should resolve it.

“We have seen that God is a multimedia God and that his words are also multimedia in nature. Like fire in the prophet’s bones, they are hard to contain, bursting the limits of our dichotomies and bursting the limits of every media format that would communicate them. Verbal TheoMedia cannot be safely locked within ink or confined within chiseled inscriptions. They are living words, words that can be seen as well as heard, tasted as well as touched.”

The big problem I have with his treatment of the Old Testament – and it’s only minor – is that I don’t think you can actually separate the words of the Shema from the visual communication effect that the Shema being carried out was intended to have on both people in Israel, and the nations. You can’t split cause and effect in this way by placing the emphasis on cause – because the effect is necessary, and part of the intended function of the law.

I like what Wenham says about the performance aspect of the entirety of Torah:

But not only is the Old Testament ritual law central to theological understanding of scripture; I also want to suggest it is a model of modern communication technique. For a long time Christians have imagined that communication between God and man is essentially verbal, merely a matter of words. God speaks to man through the prophets or through the Bible: man replies in prayer. We view communication with God as a sort of two-way radio. But God does not restrict himself to words, he uses ritual such as sacraments: ritual is more like colour TV than radio. Ideas are made visible… Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do. Modern preachers put most of their effort into teaching by hearing, though 90% of what they say will be forgotten. Moses put his main effort into teaching through ritual, a wise move if he wanted the people to remember such fundamental truths, for ritual is a kind of doing and therefore sticks in the mind much better than words…But I believe we should go further: not simply act out the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, but in our post-literate age devise dramatic rites that teach the fundamental truths of the new covenant as effectively as the Pentateuch teaches those of the old. This will require imagination and sensitivity, but I think would be worth the effort.”

If Wenham’s correct – part of the power of the Shema was in the doing, and part was in the watching – more than in the hearing (even if doing involved speaking the words). My argument is these things are so interconnected it is silly to try to prioritise one aspect of the communicative act above another aspect of the same part, and in this case, the communicative act is “image bearing for the God who speaks”… Anyway. This is a minor criticism and has only relatively small real world applications (except that it doesn’t undermine the humanity or worth of people who can’t use words as well as others).

The Gold

Byers presents his argument in a theologically rich and thoroughly engaged way… I love the way he speaks about the Incarnation. God entering the stage, tearing the sky apart…

“And now we come to the point in the Bible’s salvation-history when the sky gets ripped apart. The Bible opens with what appears to be a calm, peaceful scene: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Gospel of Mark opens in similar fashion. The Spirit is portrayed as a dove hovering above the waters of the River Jordan. This violent puncturing of the sky is a decisive moment in the biblical plot of redemption for Mark. It is the moment when it becomes clear that our God will tolerate no longer the divine-human alienation, when he will content himself no more with the mediation of prior centuries: “In Mark, then, God has ripped the heavens irrevocably apart at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his Spirit into the earthly realm.” It is not just the sky that gets torn in Mark. The verb schizō reappears at the end of the Gospel, forming what biblical scholars call an inclusio, the dual use of a word or theme that encloses or bookends a larger body of text to serve as an interpretive frame. Mark is to be read within the frame of divine-human boundaries being torn and ripped apart: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37–38).”

So good.

I love his use of John the Baptist as a model for using mediums that are wired to try to turn you into the centre of attention.

…Jesus called him the greatest man born of a woman (Luke 7:28; Matt 11:11). It makes good sense to give a little attention to the man Jesus himself called the greatest. But what we find when we look to John is that the all-consuming vocation of the greatest man born of woman was to point to someone greater, and then fade away: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). There was absolutely no self-orientation to John’s celebrity status in the fourth Gospel (or in the other Gospels, for that matter): “In order that he may not be in any sense the object of his own preaching and action, he disowns every kind of movement towards himself.”

What a guide to participating in the online world. But Byer’s conviction (and mine) is that it’s Jesus who is the best model for participating in media.

“In all his flesh and blood reality, we could say that Jesus is the “Multimedium of God.” We could also understand Jesus—speaking, touching, imaging, embodying—as the most significant and the most multisensory TheoMedium of all… Just as the medium and message of the gospel informs our media practices, so also does the Incarnation of Christ.”

He suggests one of the implications of the incarnation is that we value presence over mediated absence, which is a handy tip, but he also suggests we should be seeking to take that presence wherever we can, wherever it’s needed…

“We should honour Christ’s Incarnation by infiltrating multiple communications realms but with a high valuation of embodied presence, refusing to treat social media as a fitting replacement for face-to-face interaction, but enjoying its capabilities for enabling interaction with those who are not across the table or in our living room.”

The climax of the incarnation – the cross – is equally important in framing how we participate in media.

“The cross of Christ opposes self-orientation in any and every setting, online or offline. The motivations behind my status updates are often suspect. My heart vainly flutters a bit when there is a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog. At times I resonate a bit too happily with that exclamation mark when Twitter informs me, “You were mentioned in a Tweet!” The point here is that Christ’s call to selflessness, visually depicted in the cross, extends to any and all realms, even the new realm of the Internet. We need to carry the determinative force of the optical medium of the cross symbol into that realm and comport our media practices accordingly”

This is another point where I feel like TheoMedia may have been strengthened slightly, if the emphasis wasn’t placed on word ministry quite so much, but included the possibility that visual image bearing was a factor in the acting out of the written word (beyond the sacraments). It’s a quibble, but here’s a worked example…

“I am suggesting that the church understand media through the person of Jesus and through the ancient media practices his saving work encourages. Our verbal interactions are to be informed by the verbal proclamation of the gospel. And if we are going to inhabit a visual culture, then we should draw on the visual media legacies of the cross. Some sort of cross-visuality is affirmed when Paul writes to the Galatians that “it was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified” (Gal 3:1 ESV). Now, the Galatians were not present at Golgotha on that fateful day. But Paul’s prior preaching ministry had presented such a “vivid, verbal portrait of the event of Jesus’ crucifixion” that the scene could be understood as having occurred “before your eyes.””

I don’t think Paul just uses vivid spoken words for this – but his scars and suffering too… I think there’s a link between 2 Corinthians 4, (and Paul’s list of suffering for others in 11), and Galatians 6.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” – 2 Corinthians 4:10-11

“May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. – Galatians 6:14-17

This potentially expands his conclusion – but only slightly, because his conclusion is tops (I’m running out of superlatives and trying not to sound like an Apple product launch).

“We ourselves are TheoMedia. The church comprises fractured image bearers who are being restored to the image of Jesus, the perfect image of God. By the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit, every Christian is now a communicative means by whom God communicates within the church and reveals himself to the world.”

The control he suggests, for not being overwhelmed by the communication mediums of the world, and competing messages, is to soak yourself in TheoMedia… which, usefully, combats the “myths” packaged up in the mediums we use (as we’ll see when I finally write part four of my unfinished series on Facebook/social media and your brain).

“When it comes to spiritual gifts, the source of communication is God himself. When it comes to spiritual disciplines, we are giving God our attention and asking how he wants to influence our thoughts and alter our actions. There is this simple little policy I try to abide by after I wake up to face a new day. Before opening a screen, my plan is to open my Bible; and before listening to any voice online or on TV, I want to listen out for God’s voice through prayer… As the page has turned to this concluding chapter, my hope is that we are now dripping wet with biblical ink. In order to understand media in the digital age, we have plunged into the sacred texts of the church with the hope of having our perspectives reoriented around biblical wisdom. Reading scripture trains us for certain “habits of thought—habitual ways of viewing or making sense of the world.” This immersing of ourselves in the Bible’s theological vision cultivates “cognitive skills and sensibilities, and hence the ability to see, feel, and taste the world as disclosed in the diverse biblical texts.”

I don’t want to turn you off buying the book by giving away the ending – because 90% of the joy is in the journey to get there… but Byer’s conclusion is so sensible and theologically coherent that it seems obvious.

“We need to be drawing on cultural studies, research data, personal experiences, and practical wisdom for faithful living in the digital age; but not without our sacred “script” as a foundational resource. Here is the second overarching thesis: Christians are called to media saturation, but the primary media that are to shape, form, and saturate our lives are the media of God…we need an external media source to crack the soundscape and penetrate our field of vision. We need TheoMedia, the revelatory and communicative means of the One who is the wisest and best.”

He provides a summary of the argument of the book in eight thesis, and this is where the spoilers stop. Buy it. Read it. Give it to anybody who wants to use new mediums thoughtfully to communicate the Gospel. Get this book out there.

Tweet, oh people of God. Blog, text, and type status updates. But linger in the TheoMedia domain of the church and cling to the media legacies of Christ’s Incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, Ascension, and return. Hear the gospel. Look to the cross. Feel the embrace of brothers and sisters. Smell the aroma of bread broken and taste the sweet wetness of wine outpoured. Preach and baptize. Exercise spiritual gifts and practice spiritual disciplines that poise our senses before the media of God. – Andy Byers, TheoMedia