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Wednesday, August 02, 2006
The Future on Screens
OK FARMStrongers, for the other three of you who aren't so in to "COUSIN CAMP." Some food for thought.

I've been thinking lately about the increasing practice of Churches to use screens as a primary feature of their worship. Screens. . . . . . they rule our lives don't they? From television screens to computer screens to cell phone screens to PDA screens to Ipod screens to Movie Screens and on we could go. Screens dominate our lives and they are somewhat inescapable. Even in kids shows. Note the presence of screens. Veggie tales ends each show with Qwerty, a computer, who tells you how God's Word supposedly applies to your three year old life. There you are watching a screen inside a screen. (computer screen inside your tv screen). Isn't something just a little bit off with that? Go to concerts these days and instead of thousands of cigarette lighters lifted into the dark sky, it's illuminated cell phone screens. Either most people that go to concerts have quit smoking (doubtful) or technology is replacing fire as the primal symbol of a transcendent encounter.

Interesting Connection to fire-- In his most recent book, Sisomo, The Future on Screens, Kevin Roberts makes the case that screens are the camp fires of our time.

But come into any large church and there they are-- two of them-- glaring at you, scrolling information from the get-go. . . . stuff you need to buy, go to, be part of, sign up for. The screens at church are telling you what to do just like the screens everywhere else. Sure they are telling you different things but still it's screens doing the telling. Next the screens tell us what to sing. . . . . which seems to be ok. But what challenges me is when behind the song texts are fast moving video images. It just seems so. . . . . . . . distracting. The screens seem to be working against the primary calling of worship which is attention. Yes, at times I've seen it done quite well, where the imagery draws one deeper into attentive worship. More often than not, there is not much rhyme or reason to the imagery. Be it nature, sacred symbols or pictures of Jesus, they are just constantly changing.

So announcements over, songs sung, screens off. . . . right? Not on your life. What happens next is all at once a symbol of the fierce pragmatism and grave danger of our age. The preacher steps up to the pulpit and proceeds to preach his sermon, only most of the people don't actually look at the preacher. They watch him or her on the BIG SCREEN. I ask myself the question. Why is it that I want to watch the screen instead of the person even though I am close enough to see well? What's that about? I am troubled because

1. Screens aren't human
2. Screens magnify the speaker way beyond their actual size-- which implicitly enhances a massive power imbalance which in the hands of the wrong kind of preacher can become oppressive. . . . and even in the hands of the right kind of preacher.

Could it be that screens can make the right kind of preacher the wrong kind of preacher? I'm increasingly thinking that something about screens defies the very essence and character of the idea of incarnation. At the heart of the idea of incarnation is embodiment. I love the way John opens his first sermon: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us." 1 John 1:1-2

Now imagine if it said, ". . . . . The life appeared on a screen; we have seen it and testify to it. . . ." In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, "I apologize Lord!" It's unimaginable. The essence of Incarnation is the human form embodying the Divine. As it was with Jesus, so it is with those who follow him.

Last spring in a conversation with Marva Dawn while she was preaching on our campus, I asked her thoughts on screens. I had read her book "Reaching Out without Dumbing Down" where she comes down pretty hard on the church's baptism of technology. Anyhow, Marva makes the point that the Hebrew tradition is primarily auditory. . . . . . about hearing. . . . . while the Baalist tradition was primarily about the visual image. That one put a splinter in my brain that I've still not been able to dig out.

I will always remember being at a LARGE Passion Conference in January 2005 where they had the LARGEST AND MOST SOPHISTICATED SCREEN I've even seen in any setting. It did everything but fly. Anyhow, on the closing morning of the conference, Louie Giglio, the leader of Passion, remarked in a quite confessional and repentant tone that at one point he found himself worshipping the screen perhaps at the expense of God. Fascinating.

Isn't there something to be said for a "small" "human" figure speaking a True Word with a frail voice. I know I know. . . . you say communication is 90% non verbal and that people need to be able to clearly see the speaker in order to get what they are saying. But there's no way some of the large crowds could see Jesus facial expressions and make eye contact with him. We so quickly forget that the power is in the Word(s) not in the style or skill of the messenger. And when I am watching the screen the preacher is robbed of my direct, interactive non-verbal cues in response to the message. This, in turn, changes the nature of the encounter doesn't it?

Now this isn't just a MEGA Church issue. You see, we are witnessing a church landscape where everyone wants to emulate the MEGA Church and all its acoutriments. Just last Sunday I was in a little small town church whose sanctuary must have had 15 television screens suspended from the ceiling scattered through the worship center. It felt a bit like I was in a sky-box in a basketball arena. To their credit, they didn't project the preacher onto each one of them. They were there for the song texts (appropriate use) and a short info-mercial midway through the service (questionable).

So people come to Church and yet they watch it unfold on screens. It's no wonder we are seeing the widespread use of satellite locations where the preacher is not even present in the building. Increasingly in MEGA MEGA Churches, the preacher preaches in the biggest location and his image is beamed out via satellite to multiple other locations with eager worshippers avidly awaiting his image to be projected on the screen. Doesn't this seem to defy the essence of Incarnation. What's going on here? I think the best argument would be the unity of the Body. . . . . . . . but does that strike you as a weak rationale. Doesn't this make the source of unity the "preacher?" Just asking questions here. Looking for wisdom. Why not train up other preachers?

My emerging verdict is that screens can have a helpful dimension in assisting Christian worship though distraction is a constant danger. BUT when screens begin to substitute for human, embodied presence and interaction they in fact dehumanize worship. And in such an ironic fashion, we are robbed of God. . . . . . choosing instead to be ruled by technology.

Didn't someone make a movie about all this?

We'll give Wendell Berry the last word-- from a poem of his entitled "How to be a Poet"

a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

and yes, i'm aware of it. all of this has come at you on a . . . . . . . . . . #$@!
posted by John David Walt | at 8/02/2006 02:57:00 PM



Blogger Michael said...

"Marva makes the point that the Hebrew tradition is primarily auditory, about hearing, while the Baalist tradition was primarily about the visual image." Have you researched any further into her statement? Interesting thought of hers.

I immediately thought back to my time at Southland--I caught myself looking at the screen a lot even though I was only a few rows from the front.

I can see Louie's point about worshipping to the screen. But, are you thinking that the screens ruin community (the body) or that there is a potential to do so if we rely more on technology and have fewer preachers? My problem with the screens is that it tends to reinforce the cultural attitude of "entertain me...I'm here." When I watched the screens too much I stopped participating and started watching. Sorry for the long comment.

4:54 PM EDT  
Blogger gmw said...

great post, jd. there's a great opinion piece in the July 25 Christian Century on this exact subject that got me thinking. unfortunately, their web service is lousy, but if you can get a hold of it, it's worth the read.

Got me thinking of how easy it is really to memorize the songs we sing without visual aids of any kind--page or screen--as long as we've got a skilled song leader who can teach and help draw us along in a natural way that doesn't detract. Music is a memory aid, so we pick up songs reasonably quickly and can remember many. Do we need screens for that. plus, if there's a glitch, it is challenging to stay in a worshipful frame of mind/heart.

on the Hebrew vs. baalist traditions as auditory vs. visual, that's an interesting and relevant point. But how do we engage that and the early church visual use of cross, sacramental elements, and iconography? of course, the NT churches were hearing the Word rather than reading it in most instances.

6:01 PM EDT  
Blogger DGH said...

I'm not sure what to say...thanks for the thought seed! Th3 Watrs is contemplating using dowloads or DVDs to be the illistration for each discussion (our form of the sermon) each week. We were looking at doing a mix between Alton Brown's Good Eats and Rob Bell's Nooma DVDs... yeah I know it is a mixture that will be interesting...but this birng many a thought in my mind.

You see I have experience God is very real and life transforming ways in person (with say for example Kalas in Estes) but also via screen, and also via audio only through podcasts, raido programs, and tapes from info Tech of Robinson, etc...

I wonder if this is a dunk/pour/sprinkle discusson? I see God working in all of them in this day and age, because they are are touching the lives of people...be it though Matthew, or Paul, lives and communities are developed and formed. Coud we be forming preachers, teachers, artists, and film directors to preach and live the good news?

thanks for the thought seed, and now I must invite the discussion ging on in my head to see if they can talk while I sleep,heh.... yall take care...and even though I might not be too interested in the camp...I am loving te pictures! Thanks! (sorry the the mispelling and grammar...I am tired and want to go to bed instead of caring about them all...(as if I ever have, heh)

12:56 AM EDT  
Anonymous Matt Purmort said...

JD great post, I thought often about how Technology allows us to have less true human interaction, thus robbing us of relationships and becoming more genuinly human. If the goal of the church is to make us more Christlike, the embodyment of true humanity how would this critique our use of technology?

11:09 AM EDT  
Blogger eli said...

one could make the argument that the screen actually de-emphasizes the pastor. video feed churches see the "pastor" as simply the content puker and then they are left to sort it out on their own. most of these churches (the better ones) have a site "pastor" who does all of the relational stuff and extra teaching.

8:37 AM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

i guess i find myself asking why would we want to de-emphasize any person. . . . . this is part of what i mean by the dehumanizing that happens as a result of over reliance on technology.

as for one pastor puking out content and another doing the relational stuff--- that hits the nail on the head as to what i am talking about here. i know you are not saying this-- but how can we excuse anyone from "relational" stuff. that's the whole thing isn't it.

so summarizing--- i am not knocking screens altogether-- just looking at them a bit more closely. we need to back away from our uncritical adoption of their use in worship and ask some deeper questions-- like why are we using them and what are the theological implications. . . . . . . . thansk for engaging on this friends.

9:59 PM EDT  
Anonymous Chad Brooks said...

hmmm this whole thing is interesting. I being a usually catagorized as "the media guy" have a love/hate relationship with screens there are several things I usually refuse to do.

1. project image of speaker onto said screen unless the amount of people inside the room, area, worship center, sanctuary roughly come up to the number of young pre-teen girls outside the entrance ramp to Justin Timberlakes dressing room. Even then I still will try not to.
2. Use those horrible moving backgrounds and rotating pictures behind words. I learned in my days as a production engineer on the road that black is always better.

But I use screens, and even mulitple projectors. The line that needs to be straddled is do we want to let this technology just make a new set of rules that we "Have to follow, we just do" in order to do church. I instead try to use technology to allow me to do things that otherwise would be impossible. Transfofm a bland Youth Room into a abbey sanctuary. Use light and other things to make one feel like they are in catacombs, not fellowship hall. In my experince when one can forget where they are they are more likely to want to deeply come to God. I know that this itself is open to theological discusssion, its not the place but the action, something like that. But Heck, its better than seeing a 20 foot tall mullet on a Televangelist, isn't it?

8:37 AM EDT  

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