We live in the shift from the typographic to the iconographic age. The previous shift was from orality to typography, or literacy, as the medium of print gradually emerged, ultimately sealed by Gutenberg. This latter shift, from typography to iconography, has coincided with the emergence of television and other screen technologies. In order to be truly an advance, typography relied upon orality. In recent times the ability to read has declined because the orality stage is being skipped—fewer conversations in the home, fewer books being read to children during their developmental period, less reading of literature, fragmentation of attention, etc. Story, as the basis for orienting oneself to the world, has given way to data points. (For a brief video conveying this last point, see https://youtu.be/w0FIpudHjKA.)
Now we are headed headlong into the iconographic age with rapidly declining grounding in the typographic.
What does this mean? It means even though we are more accustomed to visual communication than any other age since the gods of stones and spiders, we’ve largely lost the ability to perceive metaphor based on the visual. A common example through which I see this writ large is in the struggle of the average seminary student to illustrate well. Dramatic scenes in movies are referred to, but not narrated. Stories are appropriated, but without a clear analogy. Word pictures like the brief parables of Jesus are for the most part missing altogether as is imagery in general. Therefore illustrations, if they are there at all, are often more like commercials breaks in the sermon without a clear connection to the plot of the sermon they interrupted. Illustrations, like ads, become the cost of listening. And because my particular world (Reformed) prefers the prose of Paul over the poetry of David, illustrating is seen as condescension to weak preachers and listeners (in spite of condescension having a notable place in the Bible’s larger plot). “Real preaching” is like the paid version of Hulu—commercial free. The result of this homiletical consanguinity not only biases preaching toward the didactic forms in scripture, it fails even to recognize the substantial narrative and metaphorical aspects of those forms.
Our imaginations get burned away by the representations in constant images on screens. Our media consumption is like the endless variety of prepared foods now sold in grocery stores. The work is done for us and so we forget how to cook. Ironically, there is a reverse correlation between imagination and consumption of the visual. This is why the second commandment, and its entire context provided by Deuteronomy 4, warns us that the ear always sees more than the eye.
Illustrating is not a watering down of the preached word, rather it is imitation of the inscripturated word.
So what do we do? Three simple steps make for a good start.
- Learn to read (again). While you may be literate in the sense that you can read words and sentences, you may be a-literate in that you don’t know how words and sentences make meaning. Read literature that has nothing to do with theology. First, you’ll learn that good literature generally has everything to do with the theology. Second, you’ll learn mimesis—how art reflects the world. This is grounded, of course, in a theology of general revelation (Ps 19).
- When an illustration is called for, decide first what you are illustrating. If you’ve ever ridden a city bus in an unfamiliar city, you may have experienced the temptation to jump on the wrong bus for fear of missing you bus. After all, if you miss your bus, you’re sunk. But if you jump too soon, you’ll likely end up worse off. If you’re not clear what you’re illustrating, then you can’t choose a fitting illustration, much less relate in a way that actually illustrates what you’re saying. This is the chief reason seminary student illustrations are unclear and ineffective—they’re not illustrating the thing they’re supposed to illustrate.
- Stop looking for the home run of the amazing story or emotional movie scene. Even among the pros, home run swings make more long outs than runs. Play small ball for a change. Think about family life, the playground at school, tying your shoes, kicking a stone, gardening, sky gazing, removing Band-Aids, the bent tines of a fork, dogs wagging tails, and on and on and on. The life of an ordinary person is way more full of illustrations than the internet.
 For more, see T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach.