Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: Redemption in an image-driven culture

The Word can become Digital.

Ask Travis Reed how he met Jesus and he'll tell you a story about listening to a U2 song.

Wounded by a string of broken relationships, he was at the end of his rope. What he needed was the gospel, and it came to him in a string of images painted with words over a driving beat. "I had to pull the car off the road. I was sitting there weeping. I looked out the window and there was a woman watering her lawn with a hose and everything was in slow motion and I knew that I'd been saved." It's the testimony of someone who thinks in images.

Social commentators are fond of saying these days that we live in an "image culture." Between the ubiquitous TV's (they're in a lot of restrooms now) and the phones in our pockets, we are rarely far removed from a screen. Most of these images are meant to entertain or titillate, inviting us to escape our boring surroundings or buy something to make our lives a little better. But for better or worse, I think the commentators are right. All these images shape the way we think.

Which is why it's good news that God saves image people. And it's a good thing God uses them to transform these ever present screens into places where the Word can become digital. When Travis got Jesus in a real and powerful way, he wanted to tell everyone. As an image person, it only occurred to him to do it through images. Thus, he began The Work of the People,  an online community of artists who create visual media for the church. The name is a contemporary paraphrase of liturgy -- what God's people do when we're called together to glorify God. "We're trying to create a visual liturgy," Travis says. The images speak for themselves.

(Press play to watch an example from The Work of the People. The clip may take a few minutes to load and begin.)

But I'm a word guy, so I've been trying to find a way to say why visual liturgy matters so much in our time. I'm impressed by what Travis is not. He's not a cool guy trying to make the gospel relevant. He's not a slick guy trying to sell the good news in the latest and greatest package. He is, instead, an image guy who Jesus got hold of through a U2 song while he was driving by a woman watering her grass. And, somehow, he's able to take you to that place where a flood of images busts through the dam of your defensive self and opens you to God. And it changes everything. Which makes me think, "This might just be true."

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an author, speaker and new monastic. He is the author of “New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church” and lives with his family in intentional Christian community at the Rutba House in Durham, N.C.