June 24, 2011
Taming the Image
People engage electronic media an average of 8 hours a day. Do they really need more at church?
The band is rockin', arms are swayin', and you're about to come on screen in high definition with such stunning visual clarity that even people in the nosebleed seats can see your perfect smile.
Is this a rock concert? A beer commercial? Or just a typical Sunday morning?
These days, it could be any of the above.
Whether you're a questioning congregant, a concerned pastor, or a perplexed professor studying the effects of media on religious practice (like me), the use of technology in the worship setting is worth considering.
Media are not neutral. Like ideas, they have consequences, especially in the church. And some of these consequences should give us pause. In Technopoly media theorist Neil Postman writes, "A preacher who confines himself to considering how a medium can increase his audience will miss the significant question: In what sense do new media alter what is meant by religion, by church, even by God?"
Given the impact of new media, we should carefully consider the medium of Christ's message.
We don't want to reduce our religion to an ideology that is but one of many in a marketplace of ideologies. Nor do we want to make the mistake of having the medium we deploy compromise the authority of the message we proclaim.
Two years ago the Chicago Tribune redesigned their paper to be more image and web-friendly. They simultaneously eliminated half of their staff—mostly the word people.
This illustrates an undeniable reality: In our society, the written word is no longer the dominant mode of communication. Instead it is visual media comprised of pictures, film, video, symbols, logos, and certain art forms. And our culture worships the images they convey to us. It is no coincidence that film is the most expensive art form we practice and that actors are revered as royalty. We typically place the TV in the place of honor in our homes, a place in other cultures reserved for the family shrine. We pay the most money for those whose image we most want to see, which is why the visually mediated—athletes and movie stars—are the highest paid individuals in our society. These images now consume eight hours (in media consumption) of the average American's day. And their ubiquity makes them invisible to us, leading us to overlook their impact. If you're tagging yourself on your friend's Facebook page right now, or reading this article while watching American Idol, or saving for a wider and flatter TV, then I've got news for you. God may be your co-pilot, but the Image is in the driver's seat.
If the church wishes to emulate our image-obsessed culture, it must also invest in the visual and reduce the emphasis on words. Here's a formula for how a church could do it:
Get a celebrity pastor (young, good-looking, charismatic with a powerful stage presence—all perfect qualities for the image culture)
Multiply his impact by super-sizing his image in the churches via giant LCD projector.
Create network affiliate stations and channels to broadcast images of this celebrity.
Lather, rinse, and repeat.
Why have we seen this model be so effective in drawing a crowd? It's no mystery. It fits the chief characteristics of our digital age perfectly:
Disincarnation: As Marshall McLuhan puts it, "on the air and on the phone" you have no body. This might be alright until you get to church, at which point a fundamental problem arises: "Discarnate man is not compatible with an incarnate church." The entire message and point of the gospel is that God put on flesh in order be with us, and to die for us. Any church use of a medium that disincarnates an incarnate God is going to be at odds with its own mission.
Distraction: As T.S. Eliot put it, we are distracted from distraction by distraction—and he said that almost 70 years ago! Since then, things have only worsened. With fast paced, jump-cut, multi-channel, multi-sensory stimulus overload, paying attention has become a full-time job.
Instant gratification: With electronic media, information travels at light speed and, along the way, it accelerates our expectations of just about everything. We are no longer willing to wait for anything.
Narcissism: Not just the shallow look-at-me narcissism so prevalent on social media sites, but the real-deal narcissism as in building a grandiose alternative persona in order to compensate for and or shield your true self from exposure. In self-help books, there is no cure for this; there are only books for coping with people who are narcissists.
Passivity: Despite the development of two-way media resources, most people use media for passive consumption. This results in a passivity that allows people to live vicariously through watching other people's lives. If you do post to the web, it's most often a re-post of someone else's activity, confirming your passivity even as you attempt to be active.
Mental lethargy: The net result of these characteristics is the dumbing of the population. Apart from the "Jay Walking" segment on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, we see this displayed in declining literacy and student test scores.
While our culture is dominated by Image, historically the church has always been dominated by Word. Image has an undeniable immediacy, but it tends to reveal only the surface of things. The Word is better able to cultivate deep reflection and precise, critical thought. Trading the Word for the Image is no incidental move. It changes what we say, as well as how we say it. Yet given the culture's wholehearted adoption of the Image, does the church have any choice but to follow suit? Must we accommodate the culture by imageizing our churches? Or do we defy the spirit of this age and do something truly countercultural—reinvest in the Word at a time when it is becoming less and less popular?