Aniconic Stories and Reading the Bible

Back since before we produced PodBible 1 I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World.

Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced).

Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture.

That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!

Now something that seems, at first brush, unrelated. I record (among other things) readings of children’s stories. Recently different people, referencing different ages of child, have mentioned that the Beatrix Potter stories are preferred over Winnie-the-Pooh. The reason given is that Potter’s are illustrated and so the child has a video to watch, while Pooh is just audio. This makes a priori sense since children get to see so much video today, and recent children’s books are usually illustrated with copious colour images, where a generation ago only a few line drawings often sufficed.

For me, this recognition was confirmed by the experience of reading Paddington Bear to my grandson. At 5 and a bit, he is a good reader, enjoys reading and also loves having stories read to him. He had watched several episodes of a video version of Paddington (not true video but like my Beatrix Potter produced zooming and panning over simple colour images). He was “getting”  the humour and chuckling away. So, later that day I got out the copy of a Paddington omnibus edition we used to read to our children. I was only a couple of pages into the first story, when he complained: “Where are the pictures?” I showed him the few line drawings, and he chose another book to have read.

The rising generations2 are simply less able to enjoy aniconic stories.

We have a second problem to compound the first: We are becoming less interested in, and even less able to ‘read’ aniconic stories.

There have been attempts to address this. As well as the ‘biblical’ blockbusters, which attempt to ‘retell’ the Bible stories as engaging cinema, people have produced visual Bibles (or at least episodes or whole books from the Bible). Some are extremely expensive and use the full range of the actor’s and videographer’s crafts (notable among these are the Jesus Film 3 and the project known as The Visual Bible).4 Distant Shores Open Bible Stories has gone the opposite route and used a crowd-sourced open and free approach.

There is however a significant issue with such visualisations, the biblical text is inherently aniconic, not only is the text itself consistently unimaged (at least for the first many centuries of its transmission) but beyond that we have very few indeed pictures of its characters from their own lifetimes. Most of those are foreigners on the periphery of the story, none of the major characters was5 imaged in from life.

If the ‘visual Bible’ approach is fraught with theological and practical difficulties, are there other approaches to cope with these issues?
Even if small children are more resistant to stories without pictures, most become capable of attending to such stories, and many learn to love them. Reading the Bible aloud in church is more, and not less, vital than it was in less visual times.

Children seem more able to concentrate in the absence of images when other stimuli are reduced (e.g. listening to stories through earphones on car journeys or to an adult reading in a darkened room). Perhaps, in church, we could dim the lights for the reading of Scripture!

This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!

  1. The idea for PodBible was stimulated by a desire to help a generation who read little, but listened to MP3s a lot, to “read” the Bible. []
  2. Remember this process did not begin with ubiquitous video on phones, but broadcast video on TV, or even earlier with film, photography and printing advances making images cheaper and very much more widespread, already a century ago before my father’s birth! []
  3. Not quite a visual Bible, but closely based on Luke’s gospel. []
  4. Which perhaps in ways not unrelated to the amounts of money involved has been mired in controversy and strife. []
  5. So far as we know. []