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Charlie W. Starr


Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books?

Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture."

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Dr. Wood next points out Tolkien's dislike of stage plays, "fearing that they coerced the imagination." Contra Tolkien, though, is C. S. Lewis' view of myth, which suggests that, in some instances, the image is more important than the word:

We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version—whose words—are we thinking when we say this?
For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone's words. No poet, as far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. If the story is anywhere embodied in words, that is almost an accident. What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all—say by a mime, or a film. [ … ] In this respect stories of the mythical type are at the opposite pole from lyrical poetry. If you try to take the "theme" of Keats's Nightingale apart from the very words in which he has embodied it, you find that you are talking about almost nothing. Form and content can there be separated only by a false abstraction. But in a myth—in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters—this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, "done the trick." After that you can throw the means of communication away. [ … ] In poetry the words are the body, and the "theme" or "content" is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul: the words, or mime, or film, or pictorial series are not even clothes—they are not much more than a telephone. (George Macdonald: An Anthology, pp. 26-28)

(When I read this passage to Dr. Wood he noted that Lewis and Tolkien disagreed on many issues and he had just written an article on that very idea—he thanked me for finding one more difference.) Elsewhere Lewis says that, when we use language to abstract truths out of myth, we are allegorizing the myth, not allowing it to be the concrete experiencing of universal principles which is so important to complete knowing ("Myth Became Fact" in God in the Dock, pp. 65-66).

My greatest concern is with Dr. Wood's claim that there "is little doubt that the biblical tradition elevates word over picture, hearing over sight." He offers two arguments: 1. The Israelites were not allowed to make representations of God, and no one has ever seen God. 2. The Israelites were constantly called to "hear" His word. I take the second point first. The people were not simply called to hear, they were also called to see, and in fact they were even called to be visual performers. Examples: the rituals surrounding Passover (eating standing up, loins girded, staff in hand) and the Feast of Booths (living in tents for a week) are reenactments of key historical moments (as is the Lord's Supper for Christians). God told Joshua to build an altar after the crossing of the Jordan so that, in later years, when parents and children walked by that place, the children on seeing the altar could ask what it meant and their parents could tell them (Joshua 4:1-7). God designed the "look" of the tabernacle down to the smallest embroidered detail. (In our conversation, Dr. Wood added the visions of Isaiah to this list.) Ezekiel begins with a detailed description of the chariot of God and ends with a detailed description of the temple to come (no commentary, no explanation, just the picture, though I freely admit that it's described in words), and Ezekiel himself "performed" his prophecies several times.

Now to Dr. Wood's first point: The Israelites were not allowed to make representations because only God could do so successfully, and he indeed intended to. It's true that no one has seen God, but "he who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Jesus was the 'Word become flesh' (John 1:14) so that we could see as well as hear him. Hebrews 1:3 says Jesus is "the exact representation" of God, not a picture of God, of course, but yes a picture because God himself, the visual essence of the Father, the word "representation", here, is an interesting one: the transliteration of the Greek into English produces the English word "character" almost letter for letter. In English this word can refer to who we are internally, our personality, or to a role in a play. This double definition captures Hebrews 1:3 perfectly: Jesus as God is God's character, performed for us to see. I am not arguing that the visual is more important than the aural in the biblical text, only that Dr. Wood's Two Towers review undervalues it.

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