|But I have to admit I'm not crazy about this look.|
My friend and colleague (and excellent pastor) Mike and I have a congenial ongoing disagreement regarding the appropriateness of permanent large video screens in worship spaces. My position is that the screens (on which are projected hymns, liturgy, etc.) are simply the hymn-book of the twenty-first century – tools for worship that are value-neutral as regards piety or the content of the worship. (Also, I argue, no church would be built today without them.) Although I don’t claim to speak for Mike (Mike?), I understand his anti- argument to be that the screens detract from the solemnity and focus of worship, and are more of an architectural intrusion than they’re worth in what would otherwise be a place of contemplative beauty (especially in an older sanctuary in which they would have to be retro-fitted).*
Although I continue to maintain my basic argument, a recent worship experience gave me pause. Participating as a worshiping member of the congregation in a church with screens, it occurred to me that this set-up allows for only one posture: upright. This is fine for joining in a song of praise, but is restrictive if the liturgy calls for a confession, prayer of lament, or even a doleful Lenten hymn. Restrictive in the sense that at such times the body (at least my body) is naturally and spiritually inclined to bow the head or bend the knee. This is why I have decided that my first preference is for another relatively new worship practice: Printing the entire service—hymns, scripture, liturgy—in the bulletin. Not only is this welcoming to the visitor, it allows for a variety of postures. I suppose many churches have the practice of doing both: the screen and the bulletin. If I had to choose one, however, I’d go with the full-service bulletin. So I can bow my head and still see the words.
And there are times when one is bowing the head but should be looking up. Attending a conference in Chicago recently, I was walking through the lobby of our hotel, mid-morning, and I noticed that everyone—I mean everyone (including me)—was bent over a screen. People of all ages. Some (like me) were walking along and consulting a smartphone screen, some were at a lobby table working on a laptop, some sitting in the cushy chairs looking at an iPad. The desk clerks, of course, on their computers. At the moment-in-time I took this stroll, I’d say fourteen or fifteen people. Everyone.
We live on a fairly busy thoroughfare. People of all ages walk or run past our house. A mere glance out the window at a passing figure always—always—reveals the bent-down-head silhouette of the screen-user. Then I turn back to my iPhone, bend over my screen, and log in my latest move in the Scrabble game I’m playing with my friend in Texas.
I hope it’s clear that this is not a finger-pointing rant, but rather a confessional and societal observation. The old cartoon staple of the newspaper-reading husband listening with half an ear, mumbling, “Uh-huh…” to his wife’s comments has been multiplied and miniaturized. I was that cartoon husband. I finally learned (with some, uh, encouragement), that I needed to physically lower the paper and look Caryl in the eye and participate in the human interaction of conversation. I have similarly changed my lowdown ways and now physically turn away from the computer screen if someone walks in to talk.
Certainly I am not the first person to notice that if I take the bent-head smartphone posture and remove the phone, I’m gazing straight at my navel.
In third grade we actually had a unit on “telephone etiquette.” I am optimistic that as we emerge from the infancy of the digital age into some kind of maturity, we will routinely teach the eye-to-eye lessons of screen etiquette to our kids, and ourselves. Our brave new world gives a cogent (and literal) new meaning to John Updike’s profound and challenging line, “We are all so terribly alone, but it’s important that we keep making signals through the glass.”
*Another topic is the abuse of screens in worship: Cute butterfly pictures; the speaker reading, badly, words that you can read better by yourself, etc. Screen or no screen, give me a skilled talking head in a pulpit anytime.
I am also curious about why a person curled up in a chair with a tattered crossword puzzle book seems somehow less off-putting than the same person in the same chair doing a crossword on a device. Do you agree?
Since publishing this post, I came across this related article in the Christian Century.