Visual Technology and the Deformation of Human Intelligence

The recently released movie “The Nativity” has raised some questions in my mind, starting with a matter of doctrine but that’s not what I come to discuss. Those unconcerned with the finer points of Catholic doctrine should bear with me for a paragraph or two as I set up a discussion about the dangers of visual technology.

“The Nativity” is said to be a reverent and well-produced movie. I have no intention of seeing it for reasons which will become obvious, but I’ll take that assessment at face-value. The first problem that presents itself to a Catholic is that it apparently shows a normal birth for Jesus and the Catholic Church has strongly tended to teach that Mary remained a virgin through her entire life on Earth — and not just regarding sexual acts. This teaching can be found in catechisms and summaries of the faith as well as in the teachings of some of the most important Fathers. While not speaking in medical terms, those various writings were certainly saying that Jesus didn’t break His mother’s hymen in the way He left her holy womb. The current “Catechism of the Catholic Church” written under the guidance of John Paul II continues to teach this traditional doctrine, using a quote from St. Augustine to summarize the ‘official’ position.

In various writings, I’ve claimed that the Church’s teachings include both revealed truths and well-grounded human speculations — Pope Benedict XVI made the same claim in his first encyclical. Disagreement in good-faith is possible when it concerns doctrines that seem to be human additions to the faith.

In my book, “To See a World in a Grain of Sand”, I disagreed with the general belief that we have souls which can survive the death of our bodies — bodily resurrection is the teaching of the Bible. Before I went public with such a belief, I did a substantial amount of research on the issue, reading some serious books on the history of Christian doctrines, books written by the prominent Fathers, philosophy books dealing with mind or soul, science books dealing with the same topics, and even some books of philosophical archaeology on the very foundations and evolutions of the words we’ve inherited — psyche, anima, and so forth. And I spent much time fretting over the contradiction between the Church’s general condemnations of dualism and the belief of many that the Church of the Apostles tells us we have souls made of some stuff different from matter.

But all of this is leading to a seemingly different line of thought. Consider this as some sort of transition from prologomena to the main line of argument…

The association of specific images with an idea or even an physical event uncertain in some way leads to a change in our thoughts which is a form of literalization. Metaphors and appropriately fuzzy images take on a specific form, hard edges and all. Anything that associates a hard-edged image with an idea will shut down the imagination which is the bridge to our deeper thoughts as we try to understand the vague or the inscrutable.

What you take in, food or images, will help to form your very being. Uncritically view a pious movie about the birth of Christ, one which shows a normal, bloody human birth and you will think in those terms. It will not put you in a position to intelligently discuss the Church teaching that Mary remained a virgin through the birth of Christ — a teaching which undoubtedly has some speculative aspects but those speculations were provided by minds more powerful than any known to modern men. View a movie emphasizing the brutal treatment of the Christ and that may well shape the way you think of His redemptive work. That is, it may well limit the way you think of His redemptive work and it may well encourage you in the modern heresy that we carry our crosses by merely enduring physical suffering.

Those more interested in literary or historical issues can easily think of the problem in those terms. Think of the movies about Abe Lincoln and then read a serious biography and you find out he was… A wealthy lawyer who helped NYC investors to cheat Cyrus McCormick out of his royalties for the reaper? A willing tool of the railroads who helped establish the precedent that state-chartered corporations could exercise the powers of the state against local communities trying to protect their ways of life? But there is that one image of Lincoln walking up the hill as a surprisingly jingoistic Unitarian hymn comes on to blur the very distinction between God and Abraham Lincoln.

The true and more imaginative knowledge that comes from reading and thinking will not always puncture legends. You may read some worthwhile books and end up with a still higher opinion of George Washington and Henry Knox, of the Indian leaders Pontiac and Chief Joseph and the wrongly maligned Geronimo. You may even have to purge images from the movie “Patton” and numerous images of Alan Alda’s smirking face as you discover evidence that Patton and MacArthur were moral giants compared to the civilian leaders they served under — despite the fact that their egos were just as bloated as the egos of Churchill and Roosevelt and Truman.

Visual imagery can easily prevent the exploration of new meanings which can only be expressed by way of analogies and metaphors and other softer-edged literary devices. Visual imagery can distort our views of history and — as one example — leave us Americans puzzled after every murderously unsuccessful adventure in some foreign region we don’t understand. For that matter, we no longer have the knowledge or the thinking skills to understand our own country. We are incapable of purging ourselves of the jingoistic images implanted in our brains by the journalists and movie-producers who are the harlots of those who hold the reins of power. Even as we, and our children, are being skinned by the corporate and political leaders of this country, we smile and sing, “His truth goes marching on” as images fill our heads of our Deity marching up that hill.

Explore posts in the same categories: Christianity, electronic entertainment, literature, philosophy, Religion, technology

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