technology and worship: part 2

Part 2 (look here for part 1)

If Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, “the medium is the message,” is helpful (as Shane Hipps argues), then we must go all the way down; we must dig into the materiality of the medium. We must investigate the conditions that make possible the process of production. Hidden powers are physically remembered in the pieces of technology we use.

Most popular discussions of technology and worship fail to explore the realities of material production–the where, when, why, and how of invention and assembly. From reading these books on media and worship, one would assume that technologies magically appear–created out of nothing. Since electronic devices are available, we have to figure out ways to make them liturgically productive. The problem, according to Eileen D. Crowley, is that “Most churches lag at least twenty years or more behind the art world in the kind of media art they create or purchase and in how they imagine that media might be integrated within worship” (32). Our churches are not on the cutting edge of media. Our liturgical media is passé. We have failed to encourage the development of artists who makes use of anything at their disposal to lead us into an “experience of the Holy” (32)

The best books on media and worship call us to create ecclesial cultures of creative cooperation. Media should not be imposed from above by consultants and experts. Rather, our use of technology at church should arise from the discernment of the people. In Liturgical Art for a Media Culture (Liturgical Press, 2007), Professor Crowley offers such an argument, typical among the most helpful books on liturgical use of media. She engages in a discussion of the dangers and positive possibilities of our media culture for worship and offers reasoned “tools [that] can help a church decide whether this new media  and new ministry are appropriate for their circumstances” (90). While Prof. Crowley wants to situate our modern use of liturgical technology in a long history of multimedia liturgy, she doesn’t engage the history of technological production. Since church has always been a multimedia performance, Crowley argues, then we deceive ourselves when we think that there is a kind of worship that is not already multimedia. “Adding today’s new media to these old media does not make worship multimedia. Liturgy has always been multimedia” (8). She exposes the false distinctions that underlie our usual ways of thinking about using multimedia in worship. We already do! We have done so for centuries.

The problem, according to Prof. Crowley, is that we lack a theologically informed process of ecclesial discernment. She proposes a highly participatory liturgical use of technology that invites as many people as possible to the planning table. Her model “includes all the faithful in the creative process, and encourages the creation of locally produced liturgical media” (90). The problems with technology in worship happen when a select few of experts and consultants impose change from above. They force technological changes to worship without any engagement with the people.

While her model describes a healthy egalitarian and communal decision-making process, Crowley never digs into what matters most: the economic, political, and social realities that make technological production possible. All those factors remain hidden. Her readers are left with the impression that pieces from technology exist creatio ex nihilo. Speakers, screen, computers, and microphones magically appear in catalogs and box stores. Where does the LCD monitor come from? Best Buy or Circuit City. End of story. The shear existence of technologies warrants our use. It’s at the store, so we think through what it will do to our worship and community if we use it. It’s a utilitarian argument.

Thomas Friedman begins to open our eyes to the reality of the conditions that make technologies possible. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree (2000), he writes, “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist… And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps” (pp. 464-475, quoted in Gorringe, p. 88). Our electronic devices receive their life-blood from weapons of mass destruction. Sophisticated weaponry and well-trained soldiers make possible our technological arsenal for worship. And our indebtedness to Silicon Valley provides the cultural legitimacy to our military machine–they defend our technological way of life. The hidden power of our liturgical electronic art is violence. To repeat Friedman’s line, the assembly of U.S. armed forces is “the hidden fist that keeps to world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish.” How can we worship God with devices that reverberate with effects of violence? Our church sound booths are awash with the blood of victims.

Crowley is right to say that “the creation of media for worship raises social justice issues” (83). But she doesn’t expose the fibers of the dead that hold together our liturgical electronics, nor does she unmask the clean surfaces to show how they are infused with violence. She does not help us listen for the voices. She isn’t haunted by their cries echoing in the microphones and reverberating through the amplifiers. Attempts at redeeming technologies through ethical use simply ignore the issue. Our self-justifying attempts at redemption aid our convenient forgetfulness; we wash our hands and move on. But God is not fooled by our trickery, nor does God absolve our sins of omissive memory: “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). God want us to listen with penetrating ears. Can we tune our senses to penetrate through the manufactured technological sensations and hear what technology wants us to forget? Electronic media has a lot to hide in order to make its way into our spaces of worship.

Comments (12)

  1. jeff

    How can we worship God with devices that reverberate with effects of violence?

    Very interesting perspective, Isaac, and very thought provoking… this quote has me considering the cross. Do you leave any space for redemptive uses of resulting technologies from the weapons industry? Very thought provoking. Thanks!

  2. Adam

    I’m a bit confused about the technology/violence claim. I could see an argument about technology that arises from military research, etc., but I don’t see that here. If anything that arises under the protection of military might is suspect, then everything that we have as people who live in the US should be considered: education, health, safety, freedom to worship, etc. Such consideration is necessary, but it can become paralyzing quickly. What is unique about media technology that it deserves greater scrutiny in this regard?
    Am I missing something here?

  3. isaac

    Jeff and Adam, you ask great questions. I don’t have an answer yet. But you are pushing me in good directions. I haven’t worked my way through yet. Ya’ll are reading my thoughts as quick as I can write them out. So, thank you so much for taking the time to press me and help me get somewhere. I am also open to other solutions or directions. Does anyone have a better way to think about this stuff?

    Adam, you aren’t missing anything. I think you nailed it with when you mentioned how we live and move and have our being in a place that is thoroughly suspect. I don’t want to ignore that. I don’t think the answer should be, “Well, that’s just the way it is, so we should get over it and do what we need to do.” That seems like a cheap move to me.

    Here’s an open question: What’s so bad about paralysis considering some of the other options?

  4. isaac

    I just read a beautiful passage from Karl Barth that may shed some light on some of Adam’s comments above. This is Karl Barth quoting H. F. Kohlbrugge:

    “the renovation of man consists decisively in a growing and deepening knowledge of sin. In the light the Law he becomes ‘more and more corrupt, and more and more sinful, until he finally realises that he is altogether man.’… God dislocates the hips of of His saints, so that they walk with a limp. ‘That which is of God acquires an attitude and gait like Jacob’s, whereas Esau strides powerfully through the world.’ ‘The saints of God can do nothing in advance; everything is taken out of their hands… they have no capacity of themselves, no wisdom…but are full of fear and trembling and hesitation and anxiety.’…. Once we have read Kohlbrugge, we can never again forget this attack, and we shall be grateful that he has conducted it so radically…. It is this power which makes it serious, effective and helpful, leading man to the humility of the genuine publican, not the arrogance of teh false publican who is really in his own way a Pharisee. It is because and as God issues the command to proceed that He also issues the command to halt, and not conversely. he kills the old man by introducing the new, and not conversely. It is with His Yes to the man elected and love and called by Him that He says No to his sinful existence, forcing him to recognise that we are always in the wrong before God.” CHURCH DOGMATICS IV/2: 576-577.

    And one more bit: “In the quarrel in which a man finds himself engaged in conversion–as he who is still wholly the old and already wholly the new man–he has not fallen out with himself partially but totally, in the sense that the end and goal of the dispute is tha the can no longer be the one he was and can be only the one he will be” (574).

    Here what I think it helpful about all this. Barth shows us that our sinfulness comes into view only after we receive new life. It’s the total opposite of how people use Romans–the so-called ‘Romans Road,’ where you can to convince someone of their sin in order to show them how Jesus can save them. Barth says the opposite. It’s only after you’ve been given the new life of Christ that you discover your sin. As he would put it, vivificatio precedes mortificatio.

    And what does this realization of our sin mean in terms of how we live our lives? Well, we walk with a limp like Jacob did. We stumble, uncertain about our next step, we hesitate, we advance with fear and trembling. We are like Jacob, not like Esau who “strides powerfully through the world.” That’s a wonderful way to display what I want to hear in our discussions and uses of technologies in worship. There is no stumbling, no hesitation about violences inscribed in their construction. Those issues are ignored.

    This may not lead to paralysis, as Adam worries. But it should lead to penitential humility, Jacob’s uncertain steps. We need to limp.

  5. darryl

    Hi Isaac,

    I appreciate the work you’re doing here in these two articles. I read Hipps very recently and was astounded at the implications his book (ie. reading of history) has for where the church has been and is headed… I think you also make some useful critique. However, I wonder if you haven’t headed down a road that makes conversation difficult, certainly in regards to the AMBS event…

    And maybe it will be your role to draw attention to the powers that underlie the discussion, but as has been noted, this route must quickly move to the larger question of how we accommodate the powers and violence under all of our lives. Surely we shouldn’t meet in heated buildings because the thermostat was made by an arms manufacturer… well, you know the arguments.

    So, a couple of thoughts/questions:
    1. I think we need to be constantly reminded and repentant about our complicity in fallen structures and powers… but how do we move on? What does limping in penitential humility look like? The paralysis may well be the most faithful response, but we will likely find ourselves fairly lonely there as most well-meaning folks block the issue and move on… see my next point.
    2. you begin article one referring to the reflection of the light of God in all things… where you have ended is in contrast to this. Is it possible that no recorded music (as it is made with the powers of violence at its heart) is redeemable or reflects the light of God? Even I, who prefers to wallow in paralysis pondering things, will move on and block the concerns if I can’t listen to tunes. :)

    Well, these are ramblings probably re-iterating the comments others have made. Keep us posted on where you end with the paper.

  6. isaac

    Darryl, you sound like a good man. Thanks for the thoughtful and honest comments. Great stuff. I think you are right that I’ve started down a path that will be completely unhelpful to the AMBS conversation. The more I think about it, the more I think I need to do something else. I don’t want to be the punk who rains on everyone’s parade.

    Here’s my problem: I haven’t heard any good reasons for figuring out “how to move on” and feel good about it. I am not happy with anything I’ve read. None of it takes seriously our debts to violence. And since that’s ignored, I can’t begin to appreciate their offerings. Emerson comes to mind: “This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true… so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not where to begin to set them right.” That’s exactly it. I don’t know where to begin an argument that people will listen to.

  7. carl

    This is a really provocative and interesting thread. Thanks for kicking it off, Isaac. I appreciate your clear recognition how much of the middle-class white North American lifestyle (not technology alone) is rooted in economic and military violence, and identify with the resulting struggle to move forward faithfully.

    Perhaps we can distinguish between humility and paralysis. Recognition of how much my life is awash in privilege (systemic racism, classism, sexism), violence, and injustice can lead me to a humility that is useful in building authentic relationships: I can be keenly aware of my privilege and how it is likely to infuse all of my actions in some way, so I can be on the lookout for that aspect of my actions. I can rid myself of the pretense that I can attain moral purity. This kind of humility doesn’t necessarily lead to paralysis, I don’t think, but to humble striving for real relationships and solidarity.

    Paralysis, by contrast, is a self-absorbed privilege; it serves no one.

    I think a certain kind of “superiority thinking” sometimes masquerades beneath a concern for justice (or the environment) among middle-class white folks; the idea that (whether by force of will or faith or whatever) I will be able to overcome and separate myself from my privilege, from my entanglement in social systems of violence and injustice, and reach a state of moral purity, from which high moral plane I can then act without reproach. Among other things, this arrogance can result in a “lifestylism” that can block real solidarity. It can also lead to a real quick burnout.

    I’m human; I can’t fight every battle that needs to be fought, I can’t excise every impurity from my soul or my lifestyle. What I can do is, as much as possible, remove the scales from my eyes, and live humbly in awareness of my broken-ness.

    I think sometimes of the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16), one of Jesus’ more confusing stories. To me it speaks to this question; to a responsibility to use even the fruits of violence and injustice, as much as we are able, towards the furthering of the kingdom.

  8. Pingback: Technology, violence and the myth of progress » Young Anabaptist Radicals

  9. darryl

    Hi Isaac,

    I’m very interested in what you decide to do. Would you be open to dropping me an email so we can continue a bit of the conversation off blog?
    dnbarg at yahoo . ca


  10. isaac

    Carl, thanks for bringing up Luke’s story about the steward of unrighteousness. I think that story is right on for this conversation. That doesn’t mean it clears things up; it just makes things a whole lot more complicated, but in a good way. Thanks for the insight.

    I appreciate your comments about humility and paralysis. But I think your discussion of humility only applies to the middle-class–the people with privilege, as you put it. And, that’s true, as far as it goes: privileged people need to humble themselves. But what exactly does that mean? There’s a sense in which people use ‘humility’ talk to make sure other people know that they feel guilty about what they have, and are trying to redeem their stuff by doing some ‘good’ with it. I think a better way to go is let the example of Jesus tell us what humility looks like–a christological humility. And for Jesus, humility means giving up everything you have. So, to humble yourself is to give away all your possessions (including technologies?) to the poor. That’s ‘responsible’ use.

    Also, I your conception of paralysis needs to dig a little deeper. Sure, the middle-class can be overcome with guilt to the point of paralysis, and simply go about their business as usual without making any changes. They (we) can afford that privilege of non-activity–i.e., paralysis. But there’s also a kind of paralysis that comes with trauma. Something gets to be so bad that you can’t do anything. You are without options, without control of your body. I’ve sat with people who are so paralyzed that they it’s impossible to go forward. All they can do is continue to breathe–and that’s exhausting.

  11. carl

    Hey Isaac,

    Great response. I could have been more explicit that all my thoughts were about myself, a privileged person. Write what you know.

    And you’re quite right that my entire train of thought is, in some sense, nothing more than a long series of excuses for not actually doing what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do. I can’t refute that.

    I do think this gets to the heart of the question – do we take Jesus to be normative in his most radical prescriptions? (The descriptive answer is, almost none of us do. But should we?) How do those ‘Jesus values’ interact with what one might call ‘simple human’ values; like, say, providing healthy food for my 18-month old son? Do I, as Jesus said regarding the birds, simply trust that if I give everything away God will provide for not only me, but him too? Is that faithfulness, or parental negligence? Similar questions pop up all over the place when we try to apply Jesus’ values to complex interdependent relationships. Once again, no clarity here, just more questions.

    I’m intrigued by what you say about paralysis, but I don’t know where you’re going with it. Say more?

  12. Pingback: technology and worship: part 3 » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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