A visual tower of Babel

Anyone who turns on a television or goes to the movies in India cannot help but see signs of America's cultural clout.

It's also easy to spot the deep influence of India and Eastern cultures in American entertainment, from Oprah to Disney, from "The Matrix" to "American Beauty." The screen stars keep finding the god or the truth that lies within, while striving to lose themselves in love and light sometime before their next reincarnation.

There are many paths to one eternal mystery and all viewers have to do is pick a channel and then get in touch with their feelings. It seems as if most of the seekers who shop in today's global mall have fiber-optic cables running directly into their souls.

The eyes rule.

That's entertainment. And that's spirituality, in the age of the visual.

"The medium of entertainment has become the shaper of a generation's way of thinking," said Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, speaking at the Rev. Billy Graham's recent Amsterdam conference for itinerant evangelists.

"We are meant to see THROUGH the eye, but WITH the conscience. Instead, today we see WITH the eye and (are) devoid of the conscience," said the Indian-born philosopher, whose ministry is based in Atlanta, with offices in Toronto, Oxford and Chennai, India. "From the Far East to the Far West, our eyes are being tantalized by violence and sensuality. How can the soul not be plundered when such an assault is upon us? I believe we must pause and understand this, or we will lose the eyes and hearing of the world."

It was a complex message, but one that had implications for every evangelist in Amsterdam or, for that matter, any leader in any other faith that claims to be built on truths that transcend human experience and feelings. For here is the essence of Zacharias' message: this is an age in which the dominant forms of communications technology are hostile to the very concept of doctrine.

The lens and the screen are friendly to emotion, but they almost always undercut dogma. It's hard to use words to debate pictures. This is sobering news for anyone who steps into a pulpit knowing that he or she is competing with Star Wars and the X-Files, with MTV and Nike.

"If I were to take all that I have said and reduce it to one sentence, it would be this," said Zacharias. "How do you reach a generation that hears with its eyes and thinks with its feelings?"

Amsterdam 2000 was the third such gathering in the last three decades of Graham's career. This one drew 10,000-plus participants from 209 nations and territories, with organizers reporting that nearly two-thirds came from developing nations and the Third World.

The 81-year-old evangelist could not attend and remained at the Mayo Clinic for ongoing treatments for Parkinson's disease and a buildup of fluid on his brain. In a taped message for the finale, he told his evangelistic heirs to, "Light a fire of commitment to proclaim the Gospel ... to the ends of the earth, using every resource at our command and with every ounce of our strength."

In a final "Amsterdam Declaration," the assembled evangelists affirmed, among other goals, the need to "encourage new initiatives to reach and disciple youth and children worldwide; to make fuller use of media and technology. ... We pledge ourselves to work so that all persons on earth may have an opportunity to hear the Gospel in a language they understand."

But what if the language that unites the world is visual? What if visual entertainment continues to dominate education, science, news and faith?

"I am afraid some day we will wake up and wonder how we were so foolish to have missed this powerful influence," said Zacharias. "And we cannot run from it. We are in it. From the pictures that tell the story, to the music that is now visualized, we are in it. The sensations are being propelled through the eye-gate. ...

"The intellect will be seduced by the imagination. The tower of Babel could be built with one language -- only it will be in pictures."