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Jesus, Thy Name Will Be in Lights

The day had to come when it would be my turn to invent and to drive the church’s Powerpoint slide show. That day was yesterday, and I am still not happy about how it went largely because I am not happy about the projector’s appearance in the sanctuary in the first place.

The church needs to be grounded. Let it be grounded in contemplation, let it be in action (and you thought I hadn’t read H.A.)—either has deep root in Christian traditions—but grounded nonetheless. I have come to recognize groundedness in two ways. First, it comes in a conscious awareness that tradition, as it has been known and unknown, identified, demarcated, diminished, and revived these 2,000 since the Christ, matters. How it matters will be as various as the days, but history must inform, history must instruct, history must lend weight to our actions. To forget how the Reformation spawned a theology of the eucharist is to lean on the same doctrinal crutches the Catholics used to define the body and the blood and to lend ourselves to the same ridicule they were subject to when soon-to-be martyrs were dragged before councils to spit, “Can the host be moldy?” Not to know tradition is to be trapped in it, to be used by it, never to discover that it holds no knowledge of the ineffable God in itself. Tradition cannot be stepped outside of, but its workings can be learned, its gears and levers pried loose. The goal of becoming grounded in tradition is to learn to drive it so that it doesn’t drive us. To say as much is to show my Protestant colors, I know, and I also know it is to do so at the expense of my Restoration flag. So be it.

Second, the church must understand its means of communication. Even as the church’s music has transformed in time, the church has neverthless for milennia clung to a belief that music is one characteristic of its voice. Likewise prayers, sermons, books. The church cannot ask every practitioner of the church’s forms to be as thoughtful as Bach or as persuasive as St. Paul, but it can expect its practitioners to respect its modes. The church can teach its people to contemplate, to listen, to read. The problem with slide shows is the problem of technology, in that a good lot of the message that one gets from it is technology itself. It’s one reason why the church hasn’t yet incorporated television into itself. Religious broadcasters, who rake in a lot of money through their cable networks, and CC-TV in sanctuaries have only succeeded so far in transmitting older forms (revivals and sermons, respectively) from cameras. Such transmissions are intended to be transparent windows into older communications. They are not; however, they are also not as opaque as later digital forms. My contention is that the church, which testifies to the powers of old media all time, must be skeptical of new media for the very fact that it is powerful. It is easy to worship images as than God, or, for example, to believe in the power of image to communicate symbol. Image is no less complex communication than music or language, and the church is grounded when it understands the significance of all its communication and treats communication itself with the seriousness it deserves.

Grounded does not describe the use of Powerpoint slide shows in my church—not yet, anyway, and I doubt that it ever will represent Powerpoint’s use there, for reasons that are structural in the Church of Christ (mistrust of history and of art being most relevant) and in my church in particular.1

On top of that, song leading was more difficult because I could not read ahead. And the man who loves the Powerpoint projector most did not like the slides I made; he substituted and added others of his own choosing, including this scene from Brokeback Mountain visual realization of a metaphor, which K describes as like Purgatory:

1 JAW in comments recommends “PowerPointless,” by Debra Dean Murphy for the Christian Century. It’s worth pinning here.

 

Comments

You’ve probably read this, but this post reminds me of something I read a few weeks ago in Christian Century.

The appearance of Powerpoint in churches kind of reminds me of the general trend in evangelical churches to structure their services and theology around the pattern of business.

As an aside, many evangelicals structure not only their church services and theology around patterns of business; many also structure their colleges and universities around these patterns, too. I guess if you bow to the almighty dollar and to the almighty Adam Smith, it matters not where and which arenas that religious devotion influences.

PS. Not to be overly catty, but this trend also influences churches to build sanctuaries that resemble stadia and universities to build chapels that are void of religious iconography or architecture and more closely resemble the ballroom of an average Hyatt Regency.

I hadn’t seen that, JAW—I’ll read it this evening. Thanks for the link. (And for the link—good title, by the way.) I think the media’s more than “just another technology,” as your commenters claim—but again, more tonight.

Yes, again, thanks for the CC article. Murphy’s is a well-thought argument, and I am sympathetic to her wariness of businessspeak, though I wouldn’t have gone there immediately (too much—and too little—media criticism in me). I appreciate her acknowledgement that “the sheer dominating presence of a projection screen in worship works in concert with PowerPoint’s client-driven bias to cater rather blatantly to the consumer/customer/individual.” This is particularly true in a small sanctuary such as ours, where the screen itself occupies a third of one wall. I didn’t mention it because I wondered if my own sense of its dominance wasn’t simply a reflection of its literal largeness, because it’s been too long since I’ve been in an auditorium/sanctuary large enough that the screen might seem less intrusive.

My misgivings about slide shows (alluded to, but not elaborated above) are most poignant when I imagine what it means when images such as these, of wafers and communion cups, are splashed all over the screen. It’s the same as JAW’s commenter’s simple solution. I can’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or not—if so, I fail to see the humor. What is an image of a cracker on a plate? Possibly, it was intended to be a reminder of the host, but intent is impossible to gauge, really, and even as a “reminder” it’s not even as useful as tying a string around the string around your finger. It’s an image of what’s meant (for we protestants) as the central symbol of our Worship, bread like the bread Christ broke, which we break to continue his own Last Supper, which we acknowledge is his Body. Likewise, the cup. But these are what the symbols are, not what images of the symbols are. Images of the symbols are, bluntly, images of crackers and tiny cups of juice. They are flat. They are reproducible in ways that crackers and juice never will be. (Some irony that such bread will never mold! 16th-century Inquisitors must be rolling in their graves.)

That’s all a long way of saying that slide shows disturb me because digital imagery, like photography before it but like photography on speed, breaks symbols, crushes signification, and (as in the image above) kills metaphors in ways that are irreparable and harmful. Because the church must deal foremost in symbols, signification, and metaphors, this is very bad.

Excellent thoughts. Your inquisition comments reminded me of something that I think is true – without a doubt (again, I could be wrong), every Roman Catholic member who has attended a COC with whom I’ve ever discussed my religious heritage has immediately balked at one concept. Not adult immersion, not acappella singing, not biblical literalism, not non-sacramental worship…but…PowerPoint slides.

Though I think some (ok, many) of Catholicism’s teachings are a little problematic, I do respect their theology of worship, and have internalized many of their loathsome feelings about evangelicalism’s PowerPoints.

i will now refer to hermit greg as benjamin.

with bated breath i await the publication of his newest essay, the eucharist in the age of digital reproduction.

You make me blush. Everyone’d probably gain more (re)reading Benjamin himself, or perhaps to search for the inevitable copycat followup title, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction” (I wouldn’t know which of those essays to begin reading, frankly).

now that i am at work, i see how truly awful that slide is!

Ahhhh—
Nothing like a little Benjamin to start the morning off right, especially when coupled with some Powerpoint critique.

I just did my first PP lesson for a youth retreat last weekend. I’ve always had a general opposition to PP but didn’t want to look like an old-fashioned slouch next to the other speakers.

Generally, I think PP makes us dumber, especially when speakers read us their slides. But I wonder if their might be a difference in the use of PP for teaching purposes and worship. In teaching, you can pause and make the image on the screen the object of critical scrutiny and discussion. It doesn’t have to keep it’s centrality (though, for many speakers, it still does).

In worship, however, especially the passive Protestant version that CofC’s tend to practice where the preacher is given unchallenged authority at least until the end of the service, PP seems to turn worshippers into even more passive, uncritical observers in a ritual in which they have no personal stake.

We craft the images that are on our screens; we write the text of our sermons; we practice the rituals of our worship. I’m afraid that PP makes us forget our agency in these things.

i whole-heartedly agree with shaun…

but, i think that in preaching, should the slide contain pertinent content… as in, say, you are preaching on isaiah and you want people to see the precarious geo-political place palestine occupies in the middle, a map would be a nice thing.

say you are wanting to preach on elijah and mount carmel, an image of baal might be useful…

but, being ever the teacher, the only way i see ppt instructive is when it is instructive.

the use of ppt slides as outline for sermon, talk, or anything is pure bromide and close to a modern day example of the abomination of desolation (images of a beaten and bruised caviezel are the abomination, the desolation are images of the hipster jesus knocking on the door the of is greg’s image above.)

I think using PP in a class isn’t nearly as bad as using PP in worship, but I still think it’s a poor tool for conveying Christian truths. It’s a piss poor medium for conveying anything other than facts, bullet-points, and illustrations. A Christianity that can be realized in such media is impoverished.

PP can’t make us dumber, but it can make speakers treat their listeners as if they are stupid, and it can conflate and divert and disrupt the creation of meaning. For that reason reading the situational moment is smart, Shaun, and I completely agree that PP abuse in worship is a whole other order than PP abuse in teaching or even in general public speaking.

I’d make less of activity vs. passivity, though. I think all meaning-making is active. Beyond that, except for the Quakers, traditional worship always is channeled through some authority. That a pastor/preacher has that authority in worship makes the use of PP that much more weighty.

(One reason I like high church is it doesn’t make any false pretenses toward leadership. It acknowledges there are times when authority and submission are valid responses to the moment.—That said, besides the Quakers I’m sure there are other groups that play the divide better than we primitivists.)

If it wasn’t clear, 15 to 12.

well, let me rephrase, now in the face of greg almighty’s dissent…

ppt bores the crap out of us and is lazy… that’s all for now folks, i gotta prepare a ppt presentation of cortes taking tenochtitlan

13-15 happened in the space of two minutes.

Re. 17: I thought the abomination of desolation line right smart.

i wasn’t retracting that… i was just retracting that ppt makes us dumber. the rest of what i wrote and the rest of my agreement with shaun stands

and this is 1 minute?

18: Everyone in the pool… now!

but i am in the pool with a blindfold on.

Polo!

Marco?!?!?

OK, PP may not actually make us dumber. My poor attempt at hyperbole may have been masking the realities of the medium and the audience.

Still, I want to push this a bit more. (I’m taking breaks between formatting a manuscript that is boring me to tears—the formatting more than the manuscript.)

Greg—I completely agree that some moments do require submission to authority. My concern is that submitting to a PP image, and here I’m thinking less of the preaching situation and more of other liturgical settings like communion or song service, leads us to accept the arguments of the beaten and bruised Caviezel as our own without scrutiny.

I see these images as schmaltzy and superficial, but they are presented as sincere representations and are designed to provoke a specific emotional response. I don’t think you are suggesting that I submit, intellectually at least, to this kind of authority.

Is that to make too much of activity v. passivity?

i’m being mealy-mouthed, but hey, who cares, i’m an untenured prof and i try to play all the camps.

i would submit then, that this use of ppt does make us dumber, then: emotionally and spiritually dumber. much in the same way that kinkade (even before he peed on pooh, and felt the breast of an innocent girl at disney world) makes us dumber. neither provide real objects of meditation… instead, they indeed maudlin and schmaltzy and reinforce a kind of unquestioned sentimentality that emprovrishes spirituality rather than sharpening it.

J: wanker. :)

S: You’re right to push this and me, and I appreciate it: it’s important that I know what I’m talking about, too. I don’t like brutish sentimentality (it’s there with nostalgia in my book), and I prefer that worship endeavors (if it does not succeed) in engaging men and women in multiple sensorial, intellectual, and emotional ways simultaneously. Caviezel-schmaltz and blond-Jesus-knocking are abominable because, as images their flatness makes them monoemotional/monointellectual—they engage their viewers once, in one way only. They are also rather transparent (though certainly the Jesus took some time to prepare) in that, unlike say a Cathedral crucifix or altar, they do not invite one to consider, say, love of object (or of God-through-object) in the time it took the artist(s) to make them. This is not to say that it would be impossible to make PPt images that can do these things and can engage men and women in the moment in complex way. It is to say, however, that however slides are presented sincerely (e.g., I don’t doubt the sincerity of the man who altered my slides this weekend), that sincerity cannot overcome the power of the projected image. You’re correct to say that I wouldn’t encourage you to submit to that authority. Where I want to draw a distinction is where the authority is given, in that the authority given the image is in some ways greater than that given the preacher, to his detriment.

On rereading all this quickly, I think I was being more argumentative than I needed to be, because I’m with you:

We craft the images that are on our screens; we write the text of our sermons; we practice the rituals of our worship. I’m afraid that PP makes us forget our agency in these things.

(I’m also rehashing some of the arguments in that article JAW linked.)

More on the mono- bit. Slide shows as a media do not invite much greater than the single-response image. The difference between a slide of an altar and an altar is that, when in worship, the altar invites contemplation because it (in spite of the transience of all things) will never be replaced with text, with Jim Caviezel, with a fisherman fishing for a white church, with a bullet point. The altar is there, physical, touchable were one to touch it. It has no power in itself, but it has a history of relationship with people both priestly and mundane, and those people set the standards for relationship to it. This difference encapsulates in part what I mean, above, by the paragraph on communication.

27 is 7. I’m on loop.

Back to activity/passivity. What I meant is to draw attention to the complexity of engagement. My desire (though I don’t always follow through on it) is to avoid talking of people, priestly or lay, as receivers. The communication model I imagine when discourse is framed that way is like a walkie-talkie, where one speaks, another listens then replies, which leads the first to speak again.

The communication model I believe is a better descriptor of behavior is semantic, which describes every participant as both receiver and transmitter of messages both direct and indirect simultaneously. This is a dynamic, complex engagement at all times, and I believe that worship must always be understood with this in mind. Even as authority of the pastor is there, it’s a semantic authority, bestowed in a similar way as value is bestowed to the altar, the communion, etc.

However, and as I now understand your point, S (and do correct me if I’m wrong), a slide show must make of worshippers passive because there is no dynamic, complex interplay established. It is only a screen which, like television when on, must be received. This is the passivity of which you speak, yes?

If so, then it is not too much to make of activity v. passivity.

Greg-

That is a pretty fair restatement of my point. I would certainly not want to suggest a model of communication that resembles a telegraph, where receiver must patiently wait for the sender to offer a complete message before responding and so on.

The thing about PP slide shows, and I should stress that this isn’t necessarily the case, is that they often subsitute a canned emotional response (to the crucifixion scene in communion services, for example) for one generated by personal reflection on the meaning of the text and the meaning of the ritual.

I have far less a problem with a speaker urging me to consider the suffering of Christ during a communion devotional than I do when aforementioned schmaltzy images are placed on a screen. Perhaps I’m being curmudgeonly about new technology though.

BTW, I didn’t think you were being all that argumentative. I was just a bit surprised because I too thought that we are the same page regarding the historicizing of tradition and ritual.

We are/were on the same page. Have patience with we thick-skulled folk. Eventually, it may take hours or days, we come around. :)

Anyway, S, I’d wager there’s also something to your facility and engagement with language—likewise mine, J’s, JAW’s, JH’s, and so forth—that makes it easier for us to privilege verbal over visual cues. So maybe it’s too different to compare Ppt image to verbal exhortation. It’s pretty clear the visual images, especially the canned ones, are tres bad, and it looks fairly clear (though there could be exceptions) that most imagistic use of Ppt, certainly in primitivist churches, has bad problems.

Beyond images, also seems clear there are some aspects of worship in which slide shows trample meaning-making and kill contemplation rather than inspire it. I’d argue right now that those instances are more true than not, but I can see myself also being convinced otherwise. I mean, I’m sure Al Gore could do stuff with a Ppt worship that I’d never imagine. More power to him and those who learn from him if he does.

So, then, what of comparing Ppt written text (bullet point slide, short text) to verbal image? Has anyone seen it done even attempted? I mean, a good writer could perhaps write a few short sentences that engage worshippers as readers, say in a responsive reading? How does the vocal word vs the digital word compare?

Of course Greg is correct regarding our facility for verbal over visual, though I’ve never been an english major (or even an english graduate student!) My frustration with much of evangelicalism is its lack of nuance, its robbing of the mystery of the Divine and the transcendent. That manifests itself in dogma, of course, but also in the aesthetic. I feel like ppt hits you over the head (or the eyeball) and oversells its case, much akin to a liturgical “Head On” commercial.

I’ll confess to a preference for the verbal that may cause some of my mistrust of the visual (though I mistrust schmaltz in all its forms). And, I would add that one need not be a graduate student of English or any other language to appreciate JAW’s description of some PP slides as a “liturgical ‘Head On’ commercials.”

I think that part of my preference for the verbal, however, has something to do with the groundedness that you described in your original post, Greg. When a speaker urges me to do something, I know who is making the argument, and I see that s/he has no special claim on me as to what I should do regarding his/her statements. The same is true for a writer whose work might be presented on a PP slide.

Often, this is not the case with the visual imagery of PP slides, especially those pulled off of Google or elsewhere. That’s not to say it can’t be done. I would love to see a preacher, or someone else, do a sermon that critically examined some of the iconography that they used to emphasize or illustrate points in worship and lessons.

Perhaps I, and if I may “We”, ask too much in asking for such grounding of liturgical practice, but every once in a while would be nice.

pledge drive time has just passed for one of the two pbs affiliates, which means a lot of bad t.v. interrupted by begging. for some reason, when pledge time rolls around pbs stations decide to parade the worst they have to offer hoping that people will open the pocketbooks.

anyway, one of the better musical shows they’ve been incessantly interrupting and resuming has been a documentary on the blue man group's recent show in vegas… the blue men as rock in roll stars. they not only try to exploit the irony of blue men as rockers, they also try to be serious in their consciousness raising. one of the ways they do this is by flashing on screen their deep thoughts pilfered from jungian psychoanalysis about everyman and whatnot inmersed in the search for truth in a digital world that tries to beat you down. and the crowd is going wild, and they are blue and dancing and banging on tubes and gutted pianos. and while being utterly trivial, they are trying as well to be (and show) how profound they are by flashing these deep thoughts across the screen: factoids and truisms come and go and the people scream. however, there is very little of substance to their deep thoughts, and this isn’t because of the orgiastic tarantism of a pseudo-rock concert syphoning off profundity. but because their deep thoughts have all the profundity of the toilet version of everything i learned in life i learned in kindergarden. the deep thoughts are plastered up there and presented, not as deep thoughts that try to explain the world and must be pondered over to see if indeed they are relevant (something that cannot be done because they have very little context, if any), but as the way the world is. on the heels of the factoid informing the concert goers the average number of times the average person’s heart beats in an average lifetime, some jungian truth is thrown up on the screen.

writing for true contemplation is difficult in and of itself, writing for contemplation in a medium that flash before one’s eyes like the proverbial life of the near death survivor is even more difficult. often the result is trite and the viewer shakes their head in agreement, indeed isn’t it wonderful… or is shocking and disrupts too much the contemplative mode (of communion, say)... or is utterly mundane (like the images of rudolph and frosty that i have seen as segues into the “real xmas story” told by paul as ICor is read getting us ready for communion, or the video of Linus reading the nativity story).

the danger provided by ppt isn’t simply there when images are used, but also text.

i wonder, as well, what a ppt worship would look like should not only appropriate text and image be used, but a protocol of engagement be announced at the beginning—even a time of response by the congregation to the image/words.

24”

i realize that my examples were of images…

I saw that show in 1992! Complete with pithy sayings flashed onscreen, both deep and shallow at the same time!

(Note: the second link is a ZIP file download of a screensaver. When last I knew it worked, I was using Win95.)

I thought this was a wonderful and memorable quote.

“Not to know tradition is to be trapped in it, to be used by it, never to discover that it holds no knowledge of the ineffable God in itself. Tradition cannot be stepped outside of…”

I linked to it from my website. Thanks.

You are kind, Steve—and up late. Thank you.