Whether you know it or not, as you flip through a magazine, or peruse a Christian bookstore, the big question on loop in your mind is “What’s in it for me?” In a culture where an advertiser or publisher has only seconds to grab your attention, there has to be a visual hook. Magazine articles hit us with one big photo, knowing that if they sell us with that, we’ll read the fine print. A book, right down to its spine, has to say “Pick me because…” For the world’s Vanity Fair hucksters, the aim is to wave a stunning flag at all costs. It doesn’t even have to be for the right country. Anything goes as long as they draw a crowd.
In a busy marketplace, Christian ads and books also need to be attractive and culturally relevant, but we too have begun to let the importance of the graphic design overpower or obscure the message.
As a designer, I love the Bible because it is filled with pictures. Every sentence is carefully crafted communication. No matter how obscure, poetic or just plain old weird Zechariah 5 might initially seem, it has a very pointy message. The images the Lord revealed were not only attention-grabbing, but also deep enough to be chewed on like good steak. With the Lord, a thousand words is as one picture. God designed a world full of mountains and fountains, gemstones and horses, symbols that communicate complex abstract truth with majestic simplicity. The prophets mined this planetful of objects because they have God-intended built-in connotations that don’t need re-explanation. Revelation communicates an enormous amount of information economically by loading a machine gun with familiar, borrowed capital. And it hits its target every time, unless of course we aren’t familiar with the capital! Shame on us.
Graphic designers know this. Images, typefaces and colors have distinct connotations in our culture. We know which colors to use to make you feel a certain way. Typefaces are also subliminally associated with certain types of messages. The average consumer doesn’t appreciate the amount of time spent choosing typefaces and colors for advertisements and corporate brands. The wavelength of the message is much wider than it often appears. You only notice it when it’s missing. That’s why office newsletters often look the way they do. Ew, and huh? It’s the print equivalent of crocodile shoes, a feather and a purple three-piece on an undertaker. Graphic designers, however, tend to fall off the other side of the horse. The presentation might be more tasteful, but the message is given second place. Why this trend? Is it our egos?
Despite having developed incredible means of communication, our culture really has very little to say. The choice is always style over substance. Beauty is everything, so we think movie stars have opinions worth listening to. A miracle of modern technology like an ipod is pumped full of disposable music and B-grade TV. We babble to fill the silence left by the departure of a very literate God. Advertising moves continually towards being art for art’s sake because there is no longer any new message. It has the basic, vacuous aim of just being seen in all the right places. The images can be abstracted from the message because-hey-I’ve-got-your-attention-now-and-that’s-all-that-matters-just-keep-looking-at-me. It doesn’t have to hit the target because it makes itself the target. Like abstract art, the response doesn’t matter so long as there is a response. Abstract art is subjective, that is, the artist produces something detached from reality so that the response to it is unpredictable. The more the art is detached from reality, the less predictable will be the ways people connect with it. The channel for the message becomes the message.
But unlike the world, we Christians DO have something to say, and it’s a matter of life and death. Even the visions in the Bible are built out of real, identifiable ‘things.’ The response matters. As symbol-makers like God, our artwork has to be totally objective, that is, it should be carefully crafted to carry the message and get the exact response required. Revelation works this way. The crystal walls of New Jerusalem have to be pure so the world can see Jesus enthroned inside. Sure, she’s a pretty city, but the bride of Christ points to Someone Else. There is a very definite response required to her beautiful gates. So, our art should not steal the attention from the message. Like the harlot in Revelation, the trappings of the Temple should not become an end in themselves. But what makes our art ‘Christian’? Are there any guidelines? Is Christian death-metal OK?
Doug Jones recently spoke about the Protestant cultural vision never lasting very long because it doesn’t get much past good doctrine on its way to good culture. In fact, it has often produced a generation of rebels who take the Spirit-endowed strength and health and head on back to Egypt for the cultural stimulation. Sure, we need to point out what’s sick and twisted about the symbols that naturally flow from those with a worldview gained from fairground mirrors. But we also need to be producing a new culture that flows from the ideals of the New Jerusalem, including art, architecture, and even comedy that bring life wherever they flow. Despite its flaws and excesses, this is one of the things the medieval period got right. Beautiful fashion, music, literature and architecture flowed out of a Biblical view of the world, and it was anything but disposable. We are still chewing on them. A strong central Christian message communicated life, structure and beauty.
Jones pointed out that the expression ‘cool’ means ‘where the life is.’ The culture that grows out of the church should be attractive to the world. Instead, we’ve let Solomon’s wives dictate what’s pretty and cool and ended up with a low-budget, G-rated tribute to the world’s Vanity Fair.
How can we fix this? With a Biblical worldview of course, and that means seeing the inherent symbolic values of the things God made as revealed in Scripture, including men and women. As we learn to see the real world, we will communicate using the language and wisdom of God. When we fill ourselves with Bible truth it flows out of us in every area of life, and the channels naturally become secondary to the message. Living water will be mediated ‘crystal clear’ through bricks, words, textiles and pixels, and the message will be expressed in everything we do. Like God, all the silent things we make will be practically speaking. Even our ads and book covers.