C-span's recent request to film the proceedings of the Supreme Court brings to mind some troubling issues about the integrity of the justice system first exposed at the O.J. Simpson trial. One of these was the question of what happens to justice when we allow cameras in the courtroom. It was not a new question, nor have we yet come to terms with the implications of submitting due process to the framings and cuttings of electronic media.

The problem of media presence extends beyond the courtroom. Churches, too, have gradually submitted to media invasion in ways that range from the blatant (consider the more extreme varieties of televangelism) to the subtle. I tend to think the most dangerous forms of evil are those that are subtle enough to escape general notice until they have taken firm root. Consider technology in the sanctuary. In some churches, the presence of a video camera has become standard, not only at weddings but often in Sunday worship. One argument in favor of this practice, of course, is that it makes the service available to the homebound. But the camera always alters what it records. What a camera "captures" inevitably becomes performance. Some people can manage not to sabotage the spirit and dignity of worship by playing to the camera, but neither are the images the real thing. What is lost needs at least to be acknowledged, and perhaps mourned.

What is lost is, to borrow a phrase, real presence. The electronic media that allow us to capture and postpone the moment, to trade space and time for "virtual" imitations, progressively subordinate and devalue human presence. We've probably all felt the irritation of having a conversation disrupted by a phone call. We've probably had the disconcerting realization that we're not really with people who are playing to a camera or an audience. Suddenly they are not completely there for us. Part of their awareness and energy goes toward the camera, and from thence toward the self.

Even apart from the artifice that comes from camera-induced self-consciousness, there is an insidious deception in the idea that a gathering for worship can be packaged as a reproducible commodity. When we gather in the presence of God and each other, we bring and exchange a living energy that cannot be captured. Like manna in the desert, it is for the moment, and cannot be saved and stored. Gathering is a necessary aspect of worship, and to the extent that we relinquish a sense of its importance, we lose something vital.

Some dimension of worship can, of course, be reproduced; a recording of a good sermon can, indeed, allow us to replay and ponder it at leisure. Preachers once provided for this by crafting their sermons as text, choosing words carefully enough to reward a later reading (see John Donne's Meditations). Still, a printed sermon differs from a recorded service: it doesn't so closely imitate the event itself that it confuses us about what moment we're in. It reminds us that this moment of reading is different; possibly just as Spirit-filled, but not an imitation of something it's not.

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It is the business of imitation that's so problematic. Aristotle coined the maxim that "art imitates life." Oscar Wilde turned that observation inside out to remind us of something rather less obvious when he claimed that "Life imitates art." It's hard to remember sometimes that life is not a novel, a series of linked short stories, a tragedy, or a comedy. All these classic literary forms are ways of organizing the material of experience so we can see something about it. So also (to rather less purpose) talk shows, sitcoms, and soaps. Listen to young adolescents in conversation and consider how heavily their social intercourse relies on ironic banter, commercial one-liners, self-parody, and hyperbole. Almost nothing they see in the mass media offers sustained, purposeful, thoughtful, or even witty human discourse.

So we settle for less. We get used to truncated conversations, frequent interruptions, shrunken vocabularies, newspapers written to fourth-grade level (and sinking), and, sometimes, preachers who seem to have studied homiletics under talk-show hosts or standup comics. We use the language of novelty, which entices us to buy new models, new versions, new approaches, rather than seeking a language that differentiates novelty from renewal. Novelty is superficial and transitory. Renewal is deep and lasting.

A congregation is not the same as an audience. Proclamation is not the same as performance. And the good news of the gospel doesn't need to be conformed to the sound bytes of network news to be relevant.

Related Elsewhere

The University of Iowa has compiled a list of resources and foundations created to examine and guide the use of technology in public life.

To get an idea of how much hi-tech equipment is used in worship services, take a look at Technology for Worship's homepage and magazine.

Read John Donne's Meditations at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

The Oscar Wilde Homepage offers information on the author's life and a list of famous Wilde quotes.

McEntyre's credentials are available at the Westmont College site, including a list of all her books and articles.

In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women, McEntyre's latest book, is available from Amazon.com.

Previous McEntyre columns for Christianity Today include:

Nice Is Not the Point (Nov. 29, 2000)
The Fullness of Time (Oct. 12, 2000)
'I've Been Through Things' (Sept. 6, 2000)
Silence Is to Dwell In (Aug. 10, 2000)

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Marilyn Chandler McEntyre
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has taught at Princeton University, the College of New Jersey, Mills College, Dominican University, and Westmont College. She now teaches at the UCSF/UC Berkeley Joint Medical Program and in the University Writing Program at UC Davis. Her column for Christianity Today appeared from 2000 to 2001.
Previous Marilyn Chandler McEntyre Columns:

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