Monday, December 3, 2012

Drop the mic?!

In the December 2012 issue of First Things, Kevin White wrote on how microphones and sound amplification have been a truly catholic technology.  It is, as White notes well, not without its undesirable consequences.  He pleads and persuades against using the microphone and sound amplification as the tail that wags the dog (God?).  As one who has watched as the ordinarily elegant Papal masses feature an assisting minister whose role is to lean in with the silver mic every time the Pope speaks or, more to home, witnessed the microphone frighten small children at the annual Sunday school Christmas program because the back row has to hear the kid mispronounce Quirinius.  I think we have equated "because we can" with "so we must."

Once it seemed church buildings were built to be friendly toward the spoken and chanted Word.  Acoustical direction never forgot these primary goals.  Then appearance began to trump all other concerns until "how it looks" and, more importantly, "how it feels" (comfort) determine everything.  The advent of sound amplification technology meant that acoustical theory could be largely ignored.  Finally, it seemed that acoustical ideals were important again but this became the goal of dampening all sound except that which was amplified so that control was key.  Churches became sound studios where the finished product was the goal and not the experience itself.

Luther could be blamed for some of this (he often is) since he seemed to have opened the floodgate with the focus on the vernacular and the intention of being heard and understood.  However, early Lutherans did not abandon all for the sake of the German the common folk would understand (if they heard it).  Lutherans retained Latin even in places where it was not universally understood and retained it for a very long time.

I think we owe less to Luther in this regard than we do to the love affair we have for technology and even more so for the ability to control the whole experience as if it were a staged play.  Hearing every word of the liturgy was less important when it changed little and everyone knew and memorized its words (and it contained few real options).  Hearing the sermon -- yes!  but the liturgy not so much.  Now with our Lutheran liturgical chaos, constant stage direction, and color commentary from the MC Pastor, hearing is worship and worship is hearing.

In some church buildings the huge speaker array dominates the visual scenery of the "chancel" while the mics have tended to grow smaller and more invisible over the years.  A confession here -- we do have microphones at the altar, pulpit, and lectern and two small speakers that seem to do a good job of covering most of the nave.  We do this as much to record as to enhance (notice I did not say amplify) the spoken and sung Word.  All I am saying is that mics are a mixed blessing at best.  But the good they do is often overcome by the excesses of our own technology addiction.

Bill Moyers was once asked by President Lyndon Baines Johnson to pray before the meal.  After the prayer, LBJ complained that he could not hear Moyers' prayer.  To which he famous replied, "Mr. President, I was not talking to you."  We sometimes forget that not everything in worship is directed to us or for us to hear.  Also we have allowed technology to make it possible to hide in the back rows or side fringes and hear everything as well as those who once had to sit close to hear at all.  This is what happens when, in the Divine Service, we should be drawn near as possible since our very presence there is a gift, but technology means we don't need to be.  Finally we have equated the artificial intimacy of a sound amplified building with the real imtimacy of the sacramental fellowship that is our true koinonia.

Well, I will end here... just a few random and somewhat pastoral meanderings today...

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