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Vivid Imagery

Adrian Reynolds reflects on the number of Bible stories that contain vivid imagery. He says preachers and teachers must wrestle with communicating these colourful pictures in their ministry.

Vivid Imagery primary image

Mrs R and I have just celebrated 27 years of being married (to one another!) and to mark the occasion she very kindly bought me a book I had been eyeing up recently. It’s called The Colour of Time and contains 200 mostly iconic images that have been painstakingly colourised by Marina Amaral, a Brazilian artist, using digital techniques alongside careful historical research (see marinamaral.com for some examples).

From about the mid nineteenth century to mid twentieth century our view of the world is essentially black and white. Before this moment, reproductions of people and events were, necessarily, paintings. While some played fast and loose with the truth, paintings were mostly created in colour.

But with the advent of photography, our historical record is suddenly black and white. Think of Queen Victoria. What do you see in your mind? A black and white queen. Think of WW1. What you do you see in your mind? Black and white soldiers with very little blood – red colours tend to get lost in black and white.

The point of the book is to show you these iconic photos – Hitler, Stalin, Queen Victoria and many more – as they really were. One reviewer pointed out that colouring despots makes them more human (in the case of Stalin) or more ridiculous (in the case of Hitler) and wonders what we’d make of Trump if we only saw him in black and white.

There are some extraordinary pictures of world events and leaders – perhaps none more so than the portrait of Abraham Lincoln, one of the photos you can see on the author’s homepage.

All this, however, it got me thinking about how easily black and white photos have duped us. Almost without realising it we’ve accepted a view of life and of history that is not actually accurate. The Victorian and Edwardian eras have been robbed of their life, whether it is to show the poverty of the slums or the opulence of the richest.

Colour in the Bible

In the Scriptures – and particularly in narrative (though it is true in poetry too) – we get colourful pictures. Stories are not full historical representations (often details we’d want to know are omitted) but they are not cold black and white descriptions of events either. They are carefully crafted and contain details that bring them to life.

In the past, when teaching people about Old Testament stories, I’ve often used the story of David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17) as a good example of a well-known story that contains more colour than most preachers and teachers allow it, for example the twisted wood of Goliath’s weaver-wood spear or the ten cheeses David brings to his brothers.

The trouble with teaching such stories is that we’re so quick to tell people what they mean that we forget that the colour is there to help people feel their way into the story. I don’t want to be all touchy-feely about it, but the power of the story is being drawn into it. Then its meaning (which of course is key) is more immediate.

Think of Nathan and his parable to David in 2 Samuel 12: “You are the man!” Without the colourful story which drew David in, the same teaching point could have been made but it would have lost its immediacy.

Lessons for Preachers

When I regularly taught aspiring preachers, I used to pull my hair out at the kind of faithful preaching which would convey the meaning of a passage correctly but do so in black and white, robbing the story of all its colour, and hence its connection. Of course, I’d rather see a faithful black and white photo than something which bears no resemblance to the original, however entertaining. But must we choose between the two? After all Scripture does not.

Communicating these word pictures in a visual age is not straightforward, but it must be done. Not only does it connect the story to our listeners, but the power of the sermon – humanly speaking – is enhanced if we preach it in a way that is faithful to the way the Spirit has inspired the story to be recorded.

Expository preaching is surely not just preaching which faithfully communicates the meaning of the passage, but one which does so in the mode and manner in which the Spirit preserved it for us.