Saturday, July 29, 2006

Smith and "PowerPointless" Modernity in the Church

Mason, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Smith is indeed recommending that we unload “the whole modern mind-set with its roots in the 18th century Enlightenment” and that we return in large measure to “traditional ways of knowing.” Yesterday I came across Debra Dean Murphy’s “PowerPointless” in Christian Century (July 25, 2006: 10-11). Here’s the gist of it with some comments here and there:

1. PowerPoint presentations now seem to dominate the experience of worship in many churches. “In churches smitten with the Microsoft wonder, its power to affect the sensibilities of worshippers and thus to shape congregational identity is most never discussed.”

2. “A tacit assumption is that PowerPoint computer presentations are merely a means to an end, a value-neutral tool used for innocent, perhaps even noble purposes: enlarging text for the hard of seeing, reducing the demand for and thus the production of printed materials; and bringing younger people, who spend much of their lives in front of screens—into worship.” This assumption is modernist in orientation; it affirms that technology provides us with obvious progress.

3. But the use of PowerPoint in the sanctuary is not value-neutral for the following reasons:

a. It elevates format over content (“chaotic, smary and incoherent chartjunk”). It's sort of like watching commercials and trivia questions at the movies.

b. It stacks information sequentially so that presentations become lecture-like. In other words, going to worship in a modern church is much like going to university classrom. It's just different "stuff" at church.

c. It divorces words from their contexts. For example, PowerPoint doesn’t deliver hymns “whole.” The narrative arc of a great hymn cannot be communicated when only a few lines of text can be accommodated on each of the 30-some frames it takes to display the entire hymn.” (It’s for this reason that we get to sing the same mind-numbing lyrics over and over and over and over and over.) And, o yes, with ubiquitous PointPoint we learn how not to use hymnals.

d. PowerPoint encourages visceral reactions so that our responses are often “downright Pavlovian” to what’s up on the screen. The screen, not the altar, table, or the cross become the center of attention. When the thing malfunctions, we all get lost, mumbling along.

e. PowerPoint makes us less aware of people around us. All eyes are forward; the sense of a community in circle disappears. (I've watched people staring up at the screen while I have been in the choir; it's an experience more people should have; everyone looks as though they're gawking at the roof!)

f. PowerPoint presentations unwittingly set up competition between what’s projected on the screen and the human voice doing the preaching, praying, or singing. When the brain is asked to listen and watch at the same time, it always quits listening. (To ameliorate this tendency, some preachers provide "lecture notes" in the bulletins in which blanks can be filled out with pencil-scribing worshippers--just like note-taking in the classroom--only there are no quizzes or examinations.)

g. Techies with their impressive skills --not pastors or people who know how liturgy works--tell us how liturgy is to work. Techies tell us what works and what doesn’t work in worship. By the way, techies also often like the flashy stuff.

Murphy asks: If Christians believe that the church and the worship it offers to God ought in some ways to counter the norms and practices of the surrounding culture, then what does it mean that after spending so much money each week in front of computer monitors, cell phones, and sports bar TVs, we come to church on Sunday and happily position ourselves in front of the biggest screen of all?

I think that is one of the implied questions Smith is asking too. On page 26, he tells that in Chapter 5 he hopes to show us how the “best way to be post-modern is to be ancient.” I suspect that has to do with “de-teching” much of “modern worship” and getting ourselves back to something more like what Christians experienced before the Enlightenment. After all, it just might well be the case the the so-called Enlightenment is really and Endarkenment--and post-modernism can help us resee Real Light. What a notion! Yep, it’s about epistemology (I too hate to use that word; it sounds like I’m so “enlightened”!)




Blogger Mason Smith said...


Murphy's argument expresses a strong feeling of discomfort I get while watching PowerPoint services. It feels wrong, somehow, but I've never been able to put words or arguments to why I'm so uneasy watching the words of the hymn up on the screen.

Reading Murphy's argument reminded me of the media guru from the mid-'60s, Marshall McLuhan, who was famous for saying, "The medium is the message." In fact, in one of his books from 1967, he changed the claim to read, "The medium is the MASSAGE." His point was that certain media--TV and movies for example--wash over us and massage our nerves with "cool" energy. We're put to sleep by the mAssage, and don't really engage the text that we're supposed to be watching.

By contrast, McLuhan claimed there were other media--print and radio for example--that were "hot." We trend to focus more on the linear nature of those media, and can engage their texts in a more formal, intellectual way.

I know McLuhan is old hat these days, but his observations match what I notice in PowerPoint church services. I can't speak for the rest of the congregation, but I'm certainly put to sleep. The "cool" medium makes me lazy. In our blended service at 10:45 a.m., I am just an observer. I don't feel like I'm really there to worship the Lord myself; I'm there to watch the Praise Team worship.

So if I'm not there to worship the Lord myself, why am I there? I could sit at home in front of the TV and watch a televangelist backed up with professional musicians do the same job. Both PowerPoint and TV are "cool" media. I am a passive consumer, not a participant.

I was reading an article by Epsicopal deacon Vicki K. Black recently that made a similar point. She noted that PowerPoint use in some Episcopal churches was moving congregations away from the hymnal and prayer book. Worshippers simply read the whole service off the screen and go home without ever picking up a Bible, a hymnal or a prayerbook.

And this is progress?

I'm sure my younger colleagues think technology is the way of the future, but I'm very skeptical. I wish more people would consider the points Murphy makes. Worship should be an experience that I help create with my prayers and songs, not a show for my entertainment.

Best wishes,
Mason Smith

Saturday, 29 July, 2006  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Enter your email address to receive frequent bundled notices via email about postings and comments

Powered by FeedBlitz