Thursday, March 15, 2012

Projectors, Images, and Imagination

This last week, a pastor from a church in my area dropped me a message, asking if she might be able to come by my little church and see how we used Powerpoint and our projector in worship.  My predecessor at Poolesville had been really creative in her use of multimedia in worship, and the word had been spread through the old-girl network of pastors in my area that maybe it was a good model for churches thinking about adding visuals to the mix.

I'd made extensive use of multimedia at my prior congregation in worship, integrating visuals, frequently preaching from Powerpoint/Keynote,  and even occasionally streaming a Youtube.  

But to this query, I had to somewhat sheepishly admit that for the last six months I haven't used the projector at all.   It's been used, of course, by members of this small and tech savvy congregation.  Not by me, though.  I've not even been tempted...yet.

Part of that might have been contemporary worship fatigue.  I can get spiritual meaning and uplift from a praise team and big-screen driven worship.  But that's because I'm easy.

I can also find God's presence in a Greek Orthodox service, or in a Catholic Mass.  God is there for me in the High Holy Days at my wife's synagogue, as the soft minor key yearning of the Aveinu Malkeinu rises from the gathered, who rocking and davit like live coral in the sea.   I can find God in silent contemplation, and in the practice of walking meditation that I learned from Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hanh.

Eventually, I'm sure the visual element of worship will be made a part of the life of my community again.  Visual media can be potent as bearers of meaning.  The ferocity of Picasso's Guernica, the deceptively simple depth of Rothko, the languorous intricacy of Klimt, or the fleshy, folded shadows of Rembrandt all speak, yet have no words.  Similarly, the stark mysticism of films like Ron Fricke's koyaanisqatsi or the sublime Baraka, the visceral tonality of Kurosawa, or the voiceless elegance of a game like Journey all give voice to the power of image to convey both emotion and symbolic meaning.

That, and you can show pictures of puppies.  Aawwww!  So kewwwtttt!!!

Where I struggle is with the assumption that you NEED to use the forms of contemporary worship.   Oh, sure, that makes worship familiar.  You need a screen, because, well, we're comfortable with screens.  Screens are how we understand the world.  Our lives are screens.  The screen I'm seeing this appear on as I write it.  The screen you're reading this on.  The big-bahonkus Fahrenheit 451 screen in your rec-room.  The little screen in your pocket that you check compulsively everywhere you go.  If you don't have a screen in front of you, then it's boring.  Old.  Irrelevant.  And if we don't have a screen, we also feel a little lost.  A little anxious.

This bugs me.

It bugs me because I love the written word, and the word spoken.  My teacher was a storyteller, and the idea that we have lost the ability to appreciate a well-woven tapestry of words would speak ill of us as a culture.  It bugs me because while visuals can and do add another creative option to worship, if we become reliant on them, then it feels like we've added nothing.  Worse, that we've somehow regressed, as the post-literate era dazzles us into believing that it is not, in fact, just as prone to distraction and manipulation as the preliterate era.  Worse, even, because at least preliterate humanity knew how to listen and imagine.

Authentic worship can take many forms, and if you must have multimedia to experience it, then you're no less limited than the ardent traditionalist, who sniffs and clucks at any worship that doesn't involve a choir and a hymnal.

I'm interested in being open to the new.  We have to be, if we're to leave space for the voices of the young and the creative.  But I'm also interested in being open to the ancient, to the rituals that still can bear meaning, to the music that reminds us that authentic faith does not begin and end with our moment.