You could say the writer Tim Challies invented blogging, or at least the Christian version of it. He has been a reliable and thoughtful evangelical presence online for over a decade. I discovered his blog when his critical review of The Shack went viral back in 2008. A couple of years ago he created a series of theological infographics, illustrating various aspects of theology. That must have been the inspiration for his most recent book Visual Theology: seeing and understanding the truth about God, a collaboration with Christian artist Josh Byers, published in June by Zondervan. Personally I purchased Challies’ book with super-high expectations: my parents are artists, my brother is a sculptor and my sister is a graphic designer. Theology shouldn’t just be read and spoken, it needs to be sketched, diagrammed and illustrated to be understood and believed. Theology as a formal discipline has diversified and specialised. It’s organised thematically, historically, philosophically or pastorally. Now we need theology to be organised kinaesthetically and visually.
I hope Visual Theology is the beginning of new theological trend. I was excited when Challies started the visual theology series on his blog. Although he wrote the book with an eye on our modern infographics, the primary purpose of Visual Theology is to help his readers “grow in godliness” (12). This purpose fits with Challies’ ouvré of ‘how to live the godly life’, whether it’s recovering from pornography in Sexual Dextox (2010), learning to live as a Christian online in The Next Story (2015) or learning the daily habit of discernment in The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (2007). It joins the well-resourced genre of practical Christian living. But I was disappointed; I had been expecting dozens of diagrams, a lavish layout and illustrations that illuminated tricky theological concepts.
There’s plenty to like, with several useful summaries that pastors or mentors could harvest to explain a theological concept. For example, his explanation of the Lord’s Supper helpfully summarizes how it both a memory aid and causes us to grow spiritually (27), also helpful is his way of explaining that “doctrine” is a tool for both teaching and describing the Bible (79), later in the book there is the profitable placement of the concept of guidance inside the concept of vocation (120) and finally the delightful phrase that “God is hidden” in our work as we follow Jesus (121). There’s also nothing to doubt in Challies’ theology, it’s both evangelical and Reformed. Justification is God’s declaration of innocence (33), Adoption is the primary shape of our identity in Christ (34-35), Sanctification is a process flowing out of the Atonement (95) and theology is organized around the classic four chapters of creation, fall redemption and new creation (67).
But Visual Theology is not really about visual theology. I expected a book of diagrams and illustrations accompanied by text, instead the text was accompanied by a small collection of illustrations and infographics. Only four of the infographics stood out as both beautiful and useful. The first was of the books of the Bible organised like the pattern of a periodic table (51-52), the second was the “living the drama” diagram which showed how multiple themes run through Scripture together (76), thirdly there was an insightful flow chart of mortification (97-98) and lastly a large proportional bubble chart organising (most, all?) the Biblical injunctions about relationships (136-137). The rest however, act more like illustrations than charts and diagrams. For example the fruit of the Spirit is simply the symmetrical arrangement of the Biblical list (114) and others aren’t clear what they are actually illustrating. Consider the crowded “what the Bible does” (54-55) diagram or the lightly populated and obtuse prayer (60-61) diagram. Then consider the missed opportunities, for example ‘the doctrines of grace’ (aka Ordo Salutis) which were originally conceived of as a list by the Lutherans in the eighteenth century, the most basic of diagrams, cries out for a useful schematic.
Maybe Challies’ book will accelerate the trend of communicating theology visually? (He and Byers have created a companion website containing some of the original illustrations plus extra diagrams.) Christian diagrams have moved far beyond the teeming, fiery flowcharts of dispensationalism. Even the old ‘cross of Jesus bridging the gap’ diagram has been superseded by the useful and evocative ‘Two Ways to Live’ illustrations. Good art does both form and function well. So diagrams should be pleasing to look at while communicating clearly. However infographics are often kitsch and can gunk up our social media feeds, so it behoves us to do this well. Perhaps Mark Barry, from the Bible Society who diagrams books of the Bible in his spare time (at his ‘Visual Unit’ blog) will branch out into doctrine? Some topics are harder to present in print and need memorable infographics to convey complexity clearly. The other benefit of doing theology visually is that you leave an artefact that permanently points to Jesus, long after the books have been pulped and the words forgotten. I still have high expectations.
Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers
Zondervan 2016, Find it at The Wandering Bookseller