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.