February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
May 3, 2011
I may have to add a proviso or two to my earlier, Baudrillard-heavy reading of the Royal Wedding. Watching it on PVR the next day (having opted not to get up at 3 am for the talking heads) the whole production turned out to be – as one might perhaps reasonably expect from a wedding – less of a Hollywood spectacle than a lengthy televised church service. When else would two billion people tune in to a church service, let alone one involving such a brilliant spokesperson for the Christian faith as Rowan Williams? The soaring buttresses of Westminster Abbey, displayed in crisp, clear HD, towered austerely over the royal couple. The priests said prayers and walked around solemnly while a choir of young prepubescent boys sang “Jerusalem” (which, despite its association with British national identity is a decidedly strange hymn, considering its origin in the mythopoetic imagination of William Blake). Despite its obvious opulence, and the artificiality of the “Wills and Kate” story as perpetuated by the tabloids and news media, the convergence of architecture, liturgy, choral music and the ancient sacrament of marriage was quite beautiful.
And yet there is still something about watching a religious service on television that changes the experience. Even in stunning 1080p HD, there is a lack of immediacy, of “presence” that disables the viewer from appreciating the dramatic, embodied act that is Christian liturgy. Instead of participating in the sacred rite, one is simply watching a group of priests march around, performing various impenetrable activities. Despite your confessional background, the whole spectacle can seem strange, somehow foreign.
A similar feeling of critical distance accompanied my viewing of the beatification service of the late John Paul II on Sunday (the beloved former pope was designated “blessed,” one step below full-fledged sainthood). Even looking beyond the fact that the proceedings were in Italian, watching this religious ceremony was not the same as being physically drawn into the space of the liturgy as would happen in a church. Watching at home, the priests marching and chanting around the giant, blue-background poster of JP II didn’t evoke a sense of mystery so much as a self-reflexive question: why are they so involved in this and I am not? TV makes the familiar strange, especially when it comes to a church service. Without an embodied, emotional, communal embeddedness in a particular place and time, the various comings and goings of Christian liturgy can indeed seem like a dislocated pagaent, a weird, even arbitrary phenomenon. This holds from the “highest” Catholic mass to the Crystal Cathedral down to a loose, improvised/Spirit-led Pentecostal revival service. The medium is the message – today’s visual technology does not just bring us into the church from a remote location, but introduces a new, potentially alienating dynamic to our worship experience. TV church is nowhere near as good as the real thing.
For further reading:
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium and the Light
Albert Borgmann, Power Failure
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Brett David Potter