Worship as Entertainment

As a result of my recent and very enjoyable re-reading of Neil Postman’s Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, I’ve decided to revisit some of the other things he wrote that I’ve found useful and thought-provoking over the last few years. Postman was, I believe, the first Jew ever to serve on the National Council of Churches of Christ’s committee on media. That alone makes his thoughts on religion worth reading as we go deeper into a digital age than he might have imagined. So, for a few days at least, it will seem as though I’m on an unapologetic Postman kick.

Early this morning, my Facebook feed had this post on the use of hymnals in worship, as opposed to projection screens. I want to start off by saying that there is absolutely nothing in this with which I can disagree. The author, who only identifies himself as Jonathan, has said much of what I have been saying for several years.

I have never been in a worship service where screens would have improved the experience over holding a hymnal, being able to read both words and music, and have it to hand to use as much or little as possible. I have also used the hymnal to help teach introductory theology to ordinands. Many people beginning their study for public ministry are nervous that they’ve “never” read theology prior to starting training, but this is not true. If they’ve been attending Sunday worship for any length of time, they’ve come into contact with at least three theological texts each week–not including scripture readings, the sermon, or printed liturgical instructions. Many students find that they are much more confident once they realize they have been not only reading, but singing theology for most of their life in the church. Some, they’ve even memorized, and call to mind throughout the week in between Sunday services.

But what I want to expand and add–which I think is more than can be put in the comments on someone else’s blog–is a stronger critique of the screen itself than Jonathan gave. His main objection is that it compromises the aesthetic of the worship space. That is absolutely true.

But the large projection screen does something I find far more disturbing than the aesthetic alone, although it’s related. A change in aesthetic makes a change in expectation.

With a hymnal in hand, the expectation is active participationin orderly worship, reverence, and (gasp) even work. “Liturgy”, it is commonly said, is the work of the people. You come to the nave (for us Episcopalians and others who use set liturgies), you look at the service leaflet or hymn board, put some kind of marker at the appropriate places in the book (often your offering envelope serves as one of them). You prepare for the activity. Often before the service started, I would look through the hymns for the day, read through the words, look to see if the melodies were the ones most familiar to me (the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 often gives alternative tunes for the same texts). Being able to do this would set the tone for the service for me.

There is something about holding the same book that everyone else in the room has–it indicates you will have to put some effort of your own into the activity, but that you are participating in something larger than your own learning. And learning about God is one of the things that happens in the worship service.

Books of all sorts set expectations–that you are submitting to the order of ideas someone else has set down; that you will put some mental effort into the activity before you; that you will encounter both the familiar and the unfamiliar on the printed page. There is a contemplative quality about holding a book that few other sensations can match. Books are also dangerous and subversive: when governments want to suppress ideas, they burn books. Religious authorities have demanded–and the demand has sometimes been granted–that certain books be banned. The printed word has not been accessible to the laity in worship for most of human history, but which books can be used and by whom has been a source of controversy since the invention of moveable type. Holding a book in worship is, in some ways, a subversive act. For at least the duration of the service, you are claiming a right to access this particular portion of the sacred texts.

A screen–whether the old-style silvery fabric screen or television-type flat screen–sets up an entirely different expectation. Where else do we encounter these sorts of screens? Overwhelmingly, a projection or television screen indicates an entertainment setting.

And this is where Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death contains an essay titled “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem”, about treating religious observation as entertainment. (I feel so strongly that those who lead worship should read this that I’ve linked to the free pdf of the book.) Postman’s critique of televangelist Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” was that it comingled to the point of confusion the different activities of entertainment and worship.

But he further critiqued the televised religious experience on the receiving end, as follows:

…there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of sacrality. Of course, a church or synagogue is designed as a place of ritual enactment so that almost anything that occurs there, even a bingo game, has a religious aura. But a religious service need not occur only in a church or synagogue Almost any place will do, provided it is first decontaminated; that is, divested of its profane uses. This can be done by placing a cross on a wall, or candles on a table, or a sacred document in public view. . . . But for this transformation to be made, it is essential that certain rules of conduct be observed. There will be no eating or idle conversation, for example. One may be required to put on a skull cap or to kneel down at appropriate moments. Or simply to contemplate in silence. Our conduct must be congruent with the otherworldliness of the space. But this condition is not usually met when we are watching a religious television program. The activities in one’s living room or bedroom or–God help us–one’s kitchen are usually the same whether a religious program is being presented or “The A-Team” or “Dallas” is being presented. People will eat, talk, go to the bathroom, do push-ups or any of the things they are accustomed to doing in the presence of an animated television screen. If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness, then it is unlikely that it can call forth the state of mind for a nontrivial religious experience….The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events.. . the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment.

Putting a screen in sacred space has the potential to debase that environment, raising the expectation that those who enter will have an experience more appropriate to that of passive audience members than engaged worshippers. For me, a large part of the purpose of worship is to bring the religious person into such obvious contact with the holy that she cannot help but recognize it once she re-enters more profane environments. Confusing that with television or movie screens has the potential to dilute that experience, trivializing the encounter with the divine, and dulling the sense of sacredness to where God cannot be experienced in the rest of life.

12 thoughts on “Worship as Entertainment

  1. Thanks for this, Wendy. It chimes with some much more random thoughts I’ve been having over the past few months … as I have been deprived of congregational worship. Some friends have offered me dvds of “worship services” or provided links to these online … even from their own churches or gatherings. I’ve never made use of these, as I have felt strongly that – no matter how appropriate the services that have been recorded for the participating congregations – I am not part of them and am – at best – an observer or – at worst – a consumer of them as entertainment.
    I have worked, ministered & worshipped in a plethora of traditions in at least 6 countries on 2 continents, and feel that even when there are no screens in evidence, there has been a gradual tendency to move from participation, “work” if you like, to consumption – whether of beautifully crafted choral music or intense contemporary music-type “worship” songs.

    1. Simon, as always, I’m glad for your comments. I think my real problem with the screens (or with televised worship) is that you move into “spectator” mode–screens are part of our experience of sports bars, movie theatres, and homes. And it’s too easy when you put the screen into places that formerly didn’t have them, you send a message that the behaviors of sports bars, movie theatres, and homes is expected.

    2. A very good point and a reminder that this is not a criticism of any one tradition.

      However, listening to choral singing has been a tradition for a long time. Is this necessarily passive? Is this now “consumption”? Has it always been? Thoughts please.

      1. Guy, I think that although choral singing is not “participatory” in the way that congregational singing is, the experience of listening is probably enhanced if the hearer has taken part in good group singing. And by that I don’t necessarily mean excellence of performance as determined by the music critic of a major paper. I would mean that the hearer has sung, in the company of the congregation, good-quality music with words that carry multiple meanings and symbols.

        If kids have had music lessons, and participated in group music making, they’re more likely to appreciate a range of musical styles and quality performances, than if they have never learned what goes into the making of music. So, even the guy with the lousy voice, who struggles to follow the melody line in the hymnal and keeps getting lost to the verse of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” that the rest of the congregation is singing, is probably more able to appreciate an excellent choral piece than the person who never hears more than “Shine Jesus Shine”, with the words projected on screens.

  2. Wendy,
    I agree and thanks for introducing me to Postman. In my Facebook comment about Jonathan’s post I observed that having a hymnal available makes it possible for me to visit the text again at another point during worship. Growing up I would frequently turn to a particular collect in the BCP after receiving Communion in what might be seen as my first attempts at meditation.

    1. There is just something humanizing about everyone having access to the same text, but using it in the way most appropriate to themselves. I expanded on that a bit, so please see today’s essay as well!

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