The Lindisfarne Gospels, a 1,300-year-old manuscript, is revered to this day as the oldest surviving English version of the Gospels. Lindisfarne is a small island just off the Northumberland coast of England. It is often referred to as Holy Island.
Its pages reveal curvy, embellished letters, strange creatures, and spiraling symbols of exquisite precision and beauty. Its artwork and symbols helped convey its message to those who could not read. Professor Richard Gameson from Durham University sees it as a precursor to modern multimedia because it was designed to be a visual, sensual and artistic experience for its audience.
There are many strategies needed for the church to have an open "front door" – to help those who were previously unchurched to come, and feel not only welcomed but to feel connected. In reaching the culture today it is clear that the church needs to be focused on a key element of this: be visual.
Scholars point to many striking parallels between our day and that of the Middle Ages. But if we are entering a new era that is similar to the earlier medieval era, what does that mean? If we are following the medieval pattern – and I believe that in many ways we are – there will be at least five dynamics:
- widespread spiritual illiteracy
- indiscriminate spiritual openness
- deep need for visual communication
- attraction to spiritual experience
- widespread belief that "truth" is relative
These parallels have moved many to regard our Western society as neomedieval. But it is the emphasis on the visual that churches today neglect to their peril. Over the last twenty years, we have decisively moved to a visually based world. The most formative influences are not books, theater, or even music.
They are films. Throw in videos and the rise of YouTube, and you have the essence of a cultural revolution – not to mention something of a return to the medieval. For example, during the Middle Ages, there was widespread spiritual illiteracy, as well as actual illiteracy. People couldn't read. This is why pilgrimages mattered so much to the pilgrims. Beyond the relics and holy places they thought might bestow grace, usually the cathedrals they visited held relics that told the story of faith through a medium they could understand: stained glass, pictures.
So while people couldn't, or didn't, read, they couldn't help but see, and from seeing, understand.
It's no different today. We are spiritually illiterate and are visually oriented and visually informed. Only now, instead of stained glass, we have film. At St. Mark, there is very little we don't try to convey visually, whether it's a song during worship or a point during a message. It is the very reason a director of digital engagement will be hired in the future. It's easy to see! Using the visual is simply how people best receive information and meaning, content and context. And because its part of the visual age, it has a way of sneaking past the defenses of the heart.
Adapted from James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated (Baker). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.
Flavia Di Consiglio, "Lindisfarne Gospels: Why is this book so special?" BBC Religion and Ethics, March 20, 2013, read online.
Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 73.