Friday, December 16, 2011

A Touch of TV... Is it so bad???

The subject of video media in worship is bound to set off all sorts of fireworks.  There are those who insist not and those who say why not.  While I am not one of those in favor, my position is somewhat nuanced.  A part of me is actually very attracted to the idea of video in worship.  I watch YouTube.  I love good movies.  I have seen (and passed on here) clips that were and are deeply moving, inspirational, and informative.  My inclination would be for judicious use and yet I cannot seem to bring myself to use video.  There are trade offs that come with video that have made it impossible for me to cross the line.  In fact, despite the fact that the idea is attractive, my greatest fear is that actually using it would negate everything else we do in the liturgy.  Let me give some reasons for this fear.

Video tends to trivialize whatever is shown on it.  Be it graphic images of sex or violence, be it awe inspiring shots from nature, video as a medium does not engage us.  We are passive before it.  We turn it off and turn it on.  We control it.  We are entertained by it.  We are repulsed by it.  We are informed by it.  But the things on the screen are not accessible to us the way the spoken Word, the splash of water, and the taste of bread and wine are.  It is impersonal.  Even when we are deeply moved by what we see and hear on a screen, we do not participate in it.  There is a great divide or distance between the world of the screen and the world in which we live.  In this way, video as a medium works against the medium of the means of grace. 

Worship engages us.  We are not passive but participate in the liturgy.  The Word and Sacraments are not our means but the Lord's means of grace.  It is the Lord's Supper.  We are bidden to us and to eat and drink of it but it is concrete and real in a way that the things we see on TV never are to us.  The whole nature of the means of grace is that they bridge the gap, they come to us, they bid us come, and they engage us not only in an inspirational way but in a personal way.  God is personal in the Word and Sacrament.  The function and work of the liturgy are to frame the Word and the Sacrament where God comes to us in the touch of water, in the voice of absolution, in the smell and taste of bread and wine.  God is embodied in these earthly elements -- that is the sacramental mystery which mirrors the incarnational mystery of God in flesh.  The screen cannot embody anything and, if we are honest, it only emphasizes the hiddenness of God and makes Him as unreal as are the things we watch on it.

Video is primarily entertainment.  I do not mean that entertainment is a bad thing.  I love to be entertained by a good book, a good movie, a good TV show, a good performer, etc.  I am not against entertainment.  But worship is not entertainment.  Even if we may be entertained in moments of the Divine Service it is accidental and not intrinsic to what worship is.  There are moments in the liturgy which I feel myself being entertained and I find myself embarrassed by the feeling.  It is not that the feeling is bad -- the setting is wrong.  Americans are entertaining and amusing themselves to death say Andrew Strom and Neil Postman.  While part of me wants to agree another part of me does not want to make such a sweeping indictment.  But when it comes to worship, I can see the problem more clearly.  The entertainment only distances us from the God who has engaged us in the incarnation of His Son and in the means of grace the deliver Christ to us.

Video is individual activity.  When a couple come to talk to me about problems and I find out that their primary interaction together is sitting on the same couch watching the TV or sitting in the same room while at work on different video screens, the problem is clear.  Watching TV is not a joint activity.  We may both be in the same room and we may both be watching the same thing, but our minds and hearts digest and react individually to what we see and hear.  The worship of the Church is communal.  We stand, we sit, we kneel.  We speak, we listen, we sing.  We do this together -- not as isolated individuals in the same space but as part of a community in which God bids us entrance and God makes us one. 

Finally, the bigger concern is that we have such a fragile understanding of the divide between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and profane, that video undermines what little remains of this vital distinction.  This is the greater area of concern that gives me pause.  Whenever we bring the world into the liturgy, we automatically diminish the holy that God has placed in the midst of the world.  The more we blur the distinction between the world and this sphere of the holy, the greater the danger to the Church and to our identity as the baptized people of God.  Putting a giant TV on the wall of the chancel is not a neutral or indifferent act.  It is a monumental action.  It brings what is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the world right there into the midst of what God is doing.  Where two or three are gathered in My name... in other words, where we gather around the Word of the Lord and the Sacraments (which are the embodiments of His name, the elements to which He has attached His name, His promise, and that make Him known to us and deliver to us His grace and gifts).

Blending things together only distorts the identity of both.  Jesus is no blend of the human and the divine.  As we confess in the creed, the divinity has not been converted into flesh (the human) but the human assumed into the divinity.  The means of grace are not blends of the divine and earthly.  Lutherans do not say that the bread or wine has been replaced by the body and blood nor do we say that the bread and wine and the body and blood are intermingled so that they are no longer distinct.  What we confess is that the bread is still bread and to it the Word has added to it the flesh of Christ given for the life of the world and that the wine is still wine but the Word has added to it the blood of Christ shed for us and for our salvation.  To delve any further into the mystery is beyond us or our manifold explanations.  We simply accept what is.  In the same way, Christ speaks of us as those who are in but not of the world, the set apart whom He has declared and made righteous and holy in our baptism.  Our citizenship is not of the world but of heaven.  We are not who we were but the people Christ has made us to be, His own new creation.  The Church is in the world but not of the world -- not a building or an address but the Bride of Christ.  The Church consists of those called out, set apart, and made distinct from the world by God gracious act in the means of grace.  This cannot simply be reduced to a dualism in which flesh and world are evil and spirit and heaven are good.  This is beyond that.  We are the children of God, created anew in Christ Jesus for good works, for the holy purpose and vocation assigned to us and given to us in baptism.

The liturgy or Sunday worship either preserves and assists this or else it distorts and conflicts with this baptismal identity.  That is why when we bring the TV into the worship service, we make a statement that gravitates against the very reason and purpose for which we are there.  We can certainly do this in unassuming ways with the same ultimate effect.  When the organ is no longer a servant of the Word and insists upon its own voice distinct from its role of supporting the church's song, something is wrong.  When the choir sings for the entertainment of the people instead of being an integral part of the liturgy existing for the sake of the Word and the worship of God, we have the same distortion.  When the Pastor becomes the central figure and no longer exists in the liturgy as the servant of the Word (its voice), there is danger.  When art becomes an end instead of a servant of the Word (the object of that art being that Word), then we find ourselves in conflict with the purpose for which we are here.  When music (hymns and songs) become matters of personal taste or objects to be used for one end or another by those who plan and execute the service, such music is suspect.  When we look up and see the most prominent secular symbol of our time upon the wall, how can we deny the association with the computer, tablet, smartphone, or TV that dominate our day to day life?

As much as I would like to, I know it is a bad idea to include video in what happens on Sunday morning.  In the parish hall or classroom setting, well, that is a different story.  But in the Divine Service, video detracts from and does not add to what is there by God's design and promise.  You are welcome to try and change my mind... but this is how I see it...


Janis Williams said...

One of the arguments for use of video in 'services' is that it's relevant. Jesus would have used power point if He'd come in our day.....

Jesus didn't come in our day. Holy Scripture says it was at the right time. God sent His Son at the perfect time, and there was no technology to speak of.

To quote Os Guiness, "He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower."

Anonymous said...

"Americans are entertaining and amusing themselves to death say Andrew Strom and Neil Postman."

So true. It is one of the greatest ironies in our culture that the spread of information is faster than at any time in history and yet we are not as well informed on the things that matter as we used to be.

No screens in church, please.

Misfit. said...

Great article! I appreciate your high regard for the liturgy. I think that as a whole, evangelicals are drifting away from the idea of keeping their services holy. We have become so relevant to the world, that the service is no longer relevant to our souls. As Vance Havner once said, "The church is becoming so much like the world, and the world is becoming so much like the church, that you can hardly tell the two apart."

Anonymous said...

Video screens in the new churches
are based on architecture. There
is no room for a screen in a Gothic
church. The Bill Hybels model
of church architecture was a big
auditorium to seat 4 to 5 thousand
people with no Christian symbols.

It is like going to a movie theater
or civic center with individual
cushioned seats. They do not want
to offend anyone with the Cross.

Terry Maher said...

Hell, somebody probably bitched when they first started putting testers above pulpits to help the sound project.