Access to the Written Word

In yesterday’s essay, I talked about the increasing use of projection screens to substitute for printed hymn books in worship services. It was largely an expansion of my response to a blog post I had come across on another friend’s Facebook page.

Yesterday, I raised the objection that projection screens set up a very different social environment–that of passive reception of entertaining images and sounds–to that which encourages reflective, attentive, active participation in an activity which aspires to some kind of relationship with a transcendent God. The problem that I identified in yesterday’s essay is that of confusion, and it’s a confusion that only goes one way. We don’t make the mistake of entering a sports bar, seeing projection screens, and behaving as though we are in church. (Although, if the Buffalo Sabres are playing, prayer might be the most appropriate response.) However, when we walk into church and see that projection screens have been added to the worship environment, we do begin to behave as though entertainment is on the agenda, possibly even the main feature of the event. Even worse, in a space designed to accommodate projection screens, it becomes too easy to equate worship with entertainment.

The original author’s main concern is that screens compromise the quality of participation in congregational singing (I agree). Some people in the Facebook conversation simply don’t like the screens for aesthetic reasons (I agree), and others worry that projection screens for congregational singing texts can also compromise the quality of music that can be put in front of the congregation (I agree). Sometimes, a printed page of words and music simply cannot be substituted effectively. Would you even attempt the annual community sing-along for Handel’s Messiah by projecting the choral parts on large screens?

Projection screens do limit the kind of music that congregations into which participation can be invited–probably nothing more musically complex than a call-response, or maybe (for the very adventurous) a round. More likely unison singing. Nice enough, if your intention is to create a fairly unreflective group-bonding experience. But if the intention is to help develop reflective, thinking, Christian believers, projection screens are exactly the opposite of what you want.

Removal of printed hymnals, and replacing them with projection screens, is a bigger problem than either the debasement of the quality of music or the confusion of worship with entertainment.

I know how snobbish that sounds. Nonetheless, I believe it to be true, and my reason has less to do with music than it does with access to the written word. Yes, I’m back to my Neil Postman soapbox. Today, I’m drawing on his essay called “The News” from Conscientious Objections, which is more fully exposited in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman writes (intelligently, I believe) about the shift from reading a newspaper to watching news on television. (These essays, by the way, were written in the 1980s, so in the early days of things like 24 hour news feeds, and well before the average person was using the internet as a major source of information.) When I have a newspaper in front of me, I can select the items I wish to read, I can select the order in which I read them. I can decide to get an overview by reading a headline and first paragraph, or spend more time studying the entire article. I can skip over entire sections (like business or sports), look only at the pictures in the Style section. I can clip the recipes from the Wednesday food section to take to the supermarket and shop for ingredients for Friday’s dinner. I can cut out the obituary of someone I know who was friends with another friend who has moved far away and send it to her. I can wrap the used coffee grounds in the rest of the paper, or use it to clean the windows or housebreak the puppy.

My use of the newspaper will not be exactly like yours, because we are different people with different interests and priorities. Indeed, Postman notes that even with the same physical format, a newspaper is different for each person who reads it. Every copy of the newspaper looks the same, but the individual reader brings his or her own agenda to the reading process.

On the other hand, the television news is the same for each person who watches–and that sameness isn’t a matter of the consent of all those watching. It is dictated by those who produce the program. They choose the items presented (often, ones with more potential for dramatic video than those with substance), the order and depth with which they are presented. If I am hoping to learn about an event–or even if the weather is going to be favorable to a planned activity–I wait at the mercy of those who produce the “news”. They, and not I, decide what I can see and hear. They decide when I can see and hear it, and they decide what is not worthy of transmission.

And the same principles apply to the texts of sacred worship–including hymnals. I’ve also seen the pertinent sections of prayer books projected on screens, and I have the same difficulty with doing that.

I own a copy of my denomination’s hymnal and prayer book (and I suggest strongly that every reflective Christian might wish to do the same). By having my own copy, I can use these texts to think about what I can expect in an upcoming worship service (I can read the collect, I can take a guess at which hymns might go with the assigned scripture lessons). I can go back after a service and look at the words of the hymns that I sang on Sunday. If there is a copy in the pew when I arrive a few minutes before the start of worship, I can “set” my hymnal by putting a slip of paper at each of the hymns posted on the board or listed in the bulletin. I can spend a few minutes thinking about the words. I can have a look at the hymns that are on either side of the one I will be singing.

I can prepare for worship, I can spend some time reflecting on my own, finding my own meaning in the texts. I can flip through to beloved hymns if the sermon is unedifying. I can carry a bit of the experience with me through the week if I go back to my own copy and revisit words and melodies I find helpful or challenging. I can spend as much or little time as I like with it.

I can take ownership of my own religious experience. So can you. Yours might be very different from mine, but we are still working off the same basic materials. Much like a newspaper, each copy of the hymnal or prayer book looks physically the same. But it becomes a different book for each person who uses it. We have a unifying text, but an allowance for a great deal of diversity within how we experience and interact with it. If we disagree, we can refer to the texts and explain why. With a common and accessible text, we have a point from which we both depart. We don’t have to say one or the other of us got it wrong.

If there is no printed text, and only a projection screen, that can’t happen. Indeed, we are being forced to a uniformity, a group-think and experience of being part of a herd, to which we only tacitly consent by attending the worship “service”. Someone else has chosen what portions of the text we can have access to, in what order, and for what that person has decided is an adequate amount of time. We cannot anticipate it by spending quiet time with the text in the pew prior to the service; we cannot recapture or reflect on it after the service by revisiting the words we have heard or sung.

I am told that removing hymnals and replacing them with projection screens makes worship more “welcoming to newcomers” and “easier than juggling a bunch of books.” I am not sure of the validity of the latter–is worship supposed to be “easy”? (And how difficult is it for anyone who graduated high school to juggle two books over the course of an hour?) The former is also dubious, as the most unwelcoming experience of congregational singing I’ve ever had was in a setting where projection screens were used, an unfamiliar hymn was “introduced” with the last two bars of the melody, one verse and a refrain was sung. I don’t like to think the intention of this was to identify people who weren’t regulars, but that was the effect.

At any rate, my crap detector (another great Postman term) goes off the charts when I’m told that something is somehow better when it does not in any way appear to be.

And telling me that limiting access to the written word is in any way a good thing needs a boatload of proof before the needle on my crap detector goes back to zero.

I think most people would be hard pressed to find many historical examples that clearly demonstrated a humane and humanizing purpose in taking people’s books away. Limiting what people can and cannot read reflectively, under what conditions, and for how long, is rarely a step in making people more thoughtful, mature, competent, open-minded. And those who desire to do so need to have their motives questioned by those of us who wish to read what we will, under various conditions, for as long as we feel the need.

Even when those people are religious leaders telling us that the limitation they wish to impose on us is somehow for our own good. Perhaps especially in that instance.

One of the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation was that lay people gained the same access as clergy to the texts used in divine worship–scripture, written liturgical rites, hymnody. This access fueled the aspiration to nearly-universal literacy, so that these books could be used in the private devotions and spiritual practices of ordinary people. The unthinking replacement of our worship texts with screens, because it is somehow “easier”, is something about which we should be very cautious.

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11 thoughts on “Access to the Written Word

  1. I couldn’t agree more here. I think the big screen accompanied with Power Point conveys either a movie theater type setting or worse, larger scale work type meetings. There is something about having a book in your hand that makes it less commercial feeling and more like a community. As much as I admire and use modern technology, there is just something about being in a place where this goes away for an hour. I realize I am not exactly the poster child for church-going, but I do know that leaving all of this behind for a while really makes one focus far better than big screens.

  2. Thank you for commenting, Stacey. The big thing in the UK when talking about “Fresh Expressions” of church was the trope (tripe) that people didn’t want to spend time in a place where the language, music, behavior, etc., was so different from the stuff they read, heard on the radio, or did in the rest of their lives. But connection with transcendence is supposed to be very *Un-like* the rest of our lives.

    Plus, even if (like someone who’s been arguing with me about it this morning) your church has the books along with the screens, there is still the expectation that the social environment is not as “churchy” with a screen. Projecting song lyrics, the text of the bible passage or the service as printed in the prayer book, takes the focus off those sitting alongside you and puts it on the screen.

    As well, the screen requires good sight-lines, which even if they’re architecturally built-in, are far from perfect. A person using your wheelchair access space may not be able to see the screen. A new family coming in with a particularly tall person may obstruct the visual line of the short elderly person who will never sit anywhere else than “my pew”. Of course, you can put the screens up quite high–which compounds the problem of shifting the focus away from altar, pulpit, gathered community.

  3. Wendy, I agree with what you have said, and – as so often – you have articulated far more clearly than I what I have reflected on.
    Two comments. (1) On the apparent increasing removal of the written word from the hands of worshippers (and visitors). My suspicion, backed by little more than occasional personal observations and anecdote, is that this rides partly on the back of an anti-intellectualism (whether overt or covert), and a dislike of what is perceived as the elitism of word-orientation. An incredible irony in this is that, down the centuries and all over the world today, churches of many types have been at the forefront of literacy & education. During my 16 years in up-country Uganda, I worked with many local church projects bringing literacy, local language being ‘captured’ in print, basic education … all focused almost exclusively on the *written* word. There are some advantages to audio “texts” (e.g. local language radio, broadcasting of other sorts) and video texts (e.g. the “Jesus” film dubbed into local languages for public showing in isolated areas). But in no case as part of the longer-term education/discipleship of churchgoers.
    (2) I am very aware of a dangerous tendency towards lowest-common-denominator (LCD) approaches in both Fresh Expressions and similar movements. (And – if God wills – discussion of this will still be included in the FX chapter of “Resourcing for Rural Ministry” that I wrote before getting ill.) And, in some ways, this has great similarities to the LCD emphasis of the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) that was – and still is – fashionable in & central to much Church Growth thinking. However by no means all are like this in my experience, especially some that have arisen with a strong emphasis on liturgy & structure. And some of the FXs of which I am most aware have had to change/develop much more word/text-centred approaches as their emphasis on both individual & corporate Christian growth has increased. Nevertheless, there *does* seem to be a default fixation on worship that has strong elements of entertainment, consumption, and personal & individual short-term satisfaction.
    Thanks for informing the debate & reflection. Simon

    1. Dear Simon–first, thank you for taking a moment at this difficult time to expend energy to make such a thoughtful comment on my humble blog. As always, I’m wishing for good outcomes for you.

      Second, my own thoughts (triggered by yours)–it’s still a “word-orientation”, it’s just taking the printed word out of the hands of the worshipping community, and giving control of the words to whoever is designing/leading the worship. If that isn’t elitism, I’m not sure what is! On top of which, Christianity is over and above all a word-dominated religion, given that we do assert that Christ was the Logos, the Word of God incarnate. (yes, I know–you’re probably “with” me on this)

      So, it really is a LCD approach to worship in its varied forms, and for the reasons given, we should be suspicious of it–especially when we’re told that taking our books away is somehow “good” for us.

      But really, it’s mainly thinking people who read and respond here, not the LCD people, so I don’t expect there will be much impact in terms of informing the debate. Just getting stuff that’s in me out of me in a relatively safe environment.

      1. On a bit of reflection, the idea that word-orientation is elitist is silly–they still need the written words, but they’re on the screen. And someone else controls them. You’re still going to sing the words, too. If Christianity is about anything, it is about words about the Word. Most sound in Christian worship is accompanied by words. Even Quaker silence awaits a word.

        This is about, I think, controlling the access to, and flow of, words. Who do we trust to do that ?

  4. Couldn’t agree more, as I’ve felt about your other posts. We did the big screen thing at a church where I used to work. It is missing the point to say that it was creaky and cringeworthy, although often it was, and that meant, to go to Stacy’s comment, that it not only felt like a work meeting but a really bad work meeting that would disengage the workforce and/or get the presented fired.

    A more serious problem as I see it is that there was nothing “there”. The images (and sometimes beautiful ones were chosen) did not exist materially, and could not become objects of meditation in the way that architecture, fabrics, furnishings could. If you take a low view of meditating on objects, you might say: what’s the problem? It seems to me that we deny materiality at our peril in church. Even if your tradition is heavy on preaching, you are attending to a speaker, a physical presence using a body to form language.

    Also, these images were there precisely as long as the worship leader chose them to be. That went a long way to undermine the supposedly free-form, unbuttoned style of worship we were aiming for. The tools to enable worship were out of our hands.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Guy. I’m glad you find my musings helpful.

      You’re spot on that putting control of the hymn texts (or the prayer biddings and responses) in the hands of someone running the video equipment does not really allow for the free worship that is often claimed screens enable.

      But it’s also that, if you take away the books (whether hymnals, prayer books, the Bible), you take away the opportunity for people to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” For 500 years or so, a developing relationship with God has been assisted by the laity having access to the sacred texts, being able to read them at their own pace, in their own time. Having done so, they can worship more fully, hear the sermon more usefully.

      Of course, I don’t put the hymnal on the same level as the Bible, but certainly, it is an aid to meditation. Taking them out of the pews and replacing them with screens is, I think, a major step backwards.

  5. This is do very good. I’m weary of choices being trumpeted as mere preference when there are theological considerations. In reality, everything we do in corporate worship should be examined theologically.

    1. It’s not that I have problems with change (this blog is all about change), or technology (you don’t blog if you do!). It’s just that I think we need to weigh what we are losing along with what might be gained when we make those changes or incorporate technologies. And if anyone tells us we don’t stand to lose something, we need to examine that.

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