Visually Speaking

You might have heard of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity or Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but have you heard of Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication? 

Shannon grew up in a small town in Michigan. As a child he was drawn to science and pulled apart fencing wire to construct a working telegraph between his house and a friend’s a half mile away. Shannon later attended MIT and worked at Bell Labs, where he was known for his eccentricity and riding the halls on his unicycle. But what brought Shannon academic notoriety was a thesis he wrote at MIT on how electrical switches could become binary, a concept that today is the engineering behind all computers. His thesis is considered one of the most significant of the 20th century. 

In 1948 Shannon made his second contribution towards enhancing how we communicate by publishing a then 79-page paper on how mathematics can influence communication. Shannon explained how information is processed, the limits of a “signal,” and the challenge of what he called a “noise source.” In his book The Information, science writer James Gleick notes how Shannon coined the name “bit” as a unit of information which has joined the “inch, the pound, the quart, and the minute as… fundamental unit of [measurement].” Shannon’s insights, along with others, began what technology author Nicholas Negroponte called the “irreversible and unstoppable change from atoms to bits;” meaning, the digital age we think of as encompassing smartphones, laptops, and Netflix began with Shannon’s work.

What truly fascinated Shannon, however, was how a “message,” as he called it, travelled from its “information source” to its “destination.” He noted how, “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning.” Shannon’s concern in 1948 is in many ways the pressing question for the church today. Namely, how to proclaim a “message” that has “meaning” - the gospel - between two points: the preacher and the listener. In particular as that message faces, in Shannon’s observation, a “noise source.” Shannon created this diagram to explain how his communication worked and the obstacles involved:

At its publication, Shannon’s diagram referred to communication as it related to circuits, relays, and wires, but metaphorically his concepts applied to broader disciplines. After his paper was published psychologists, for example, discerned parallels with their own work. Today, as we catch up with a friend over coffee, email or text with family members, Shannons’ terms are still relevant. As we communicate, there is typically an “information source,” a “message,” a means of transmission, a “signal,” a “noise source,” and a destination of the message.

 But what vexed Shannon in 1948, and still vexes us today, is overcoming what interferes with the transmission of a message - the “noise.” John R. Pierce frames the issue in his book An Introduction to Information Theory. He writes, “When the recipient receives a message over a noisy channel, he knows what message he has received, but he cannot ordinarily be sure what message was transmitted.” How does one overcome the “noise”?  Graham P. Collins explains in a Scientific American article , a significant contribution Shannon made that “he analyzed the ability to send information through a communications channel... [and] found that a channel had a certain maximum transmission rate that could not be exceeded.”

 When I consider pastors today it feels as if many of us are grappling with the reality that we preach over an increasingly “noisy channel” with a diminishing “maximum transmission rate.” In particular, if we preach using only the spoken word. Impacted by smartphones and digital media our human attention span has now fallen to under eight seconds; the time it takes to tap between email, Twitter and Instagram. Fast Company Magazine reports that studies reveal that we retain 80% of what we see, 20% of what we read, and only 10% of what we hear. So what can preachers do? Are the channels today too “noisy” and the “maximum transmission rate” too small?

 Some communication experts, such as Professor Eva Brumberger, suggest the answer is no. But to be successful in a digital age, we need not only be literate in the written and spoken word, but also “visually literate.” I call this skill, “visually speaking.” What does that mean? As pastors we need to become fluent communicating in visual images and media. How we begin to learn this digital language is recognizing we already speak it, but under a different name - word and sacrament. Some of us might prefer the Word proclaimed through the stirring words of Barbara Brown Taylor, while others feel spiritually fed by the sign and symbol of bread and wine. But combining these elements is theologically what it sounds and looks like to “visually speak”; words augment the visual, and the visual enhances that which is spoken aloud.

 Second, as one might take a language placement exam, it’s helpful to know where we fall on the “visually speaking” continuum. At one end is the preacher who faithfully uses a manuscript; on the other, the pastor who walks a stage in front of a screen that runs clips from YouTube. In between are those who intermittently use a video in worship to underscore a specific point, those who combine words and images in a PowerPoint, and those who publish images in the bulletin that relate to the sermon.

 After identifying where we fall on the continuum, as a student might take an immersion course in a foreign country, it’s then beneficial to take a step out of our comfort zone and to try something new. For example, a preacher who utilizes only the spoken word might include images in the bulletin that relate to the sermon. Studies show combining an image with a spoken presentation dramatically increases the likelihood it will be remembered in the future. We might try preaching with PowerPoint or show a video clip on a screen that relates to the sermon. In her helpful book Making a Scene In the Pulpit: Vivid Preaching for Visual Listeners, Alyce McKenzie observes how people today live their lives in a sequence of visual moments or “scenes” rather than within a longer narrative. “Preaching in scenes,” suggests McKenzie, “is congruent with how people experience life today.” Including images in a PowerPoint or a video on a screen enables us to speak the language of our visual listeners and to enable them to fame these “scenes” within the larger narrative of the gospel.

 Scripture teaches how the Word became flesh and that we were created in the image of God. Word and image are ensconced in our historical lexicon of faith, but it is time to learn how to speak these words and concepts in a new language, visually speaking in a digital age.

 Contributor: Mark Barger Elliott


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Mark Barger Elliott is Senior Pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He is the author of Creative Styles of Preaching and has taught preaching at McCormick Theological Seminary and “Biblical Perspectives” at Compass College of the Visual Arts.