Friday, November 13, 2020

The Screen: Still a Servant of Word and Light

The pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technology in many organizations, including churches.  Where once churches resisted using screen technology in their sanctuaries, Covid restrictions left them with little choice but to teach and worship using screens in their people’s homes. 

In this post I want to revisit church use of screens in sanctuaries, and then update how they bring learning, community building, and worship into our homes. 

“The Power of Film and Faith” was the theme for the Pacific School of Religion’s 101st E.T. Earl Lectures (2002). Hosted annually by the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, California, the conference planners faced a challenge shared by many churches: how to show films and pictures in a sunny, bright sanctuary. They researched projectors bright enough for any condition, and rented one with 5000 lumens. For comparison purposes, my own church at the time, with limited natural light, needed a projector with only 750 lumens. 

The large screen (9'x12') was placed in the center of the chancel, partly obscuring the central visual feature in the sanctuary: the organ and its ranks of pipes. High above these was a round stained glass window. The screen was used during the three-day conference to display slides and video in various lecture presentations, and for three worship services. 

The screen, with its aluminum frame and black cloth edging, stood awkwardly in a chancel clearly not designed to accommodate such a thing. It was clear to all that it was a temporary intrusion, yet that didn’t matter to the conference registrants who came knowing film and other visuals would be displayed. They were willing to suspend their sensibilities to experience all that the screen could offer. 

Throughout the conference many different images, words, and films were projected on the screen. The screen served as a medium for learning and worship. Lecturers referred to what was shown on the screen and during one of the worship services, a small group provided a short liturgical dance in response to a scene from a movie. 

The worship service I led began at noon on a bright sunny day. As it happened, it was the only time of the day when direct light came in contract with the screen, from the round stained glass window high up on the chancel wall. Blue light streamed through the rose window, shining through the top section of the screen, and interfering with the top portion of the words and images we were showing. 

I saw this as an opportunity rather than a crisis. I thought it important to begin the service by helping the congregation reflect upon the presence of the screen in the sanctuary. Throughout the conference, there was no mention of the screen and its relationship to the architecture and the learning/worship experiences. 

Since I was leading the final event of the conference, I thought it an opportunity to reflect with the congregation on the role the screen played for the last three days. As I summarized the conference theme and the purpose of our closing worship, I walked into the center aisle and turned my back to the congregation while pointing towards the screen and called attention to all that was arrayed before us in that chancel. 

The rose window shone its holy light from above. Beneath the window were the ranks of pipes for the beautiful organ that was centered in the chancel. Hanging in front of the pipes was a small cross. The large screen was set in front of this on the stage level, partly obscuring the pipes and cross, and clearly interrupting the visuals that were designed for that space. On either side of the chancel were thin banners, each with a word highlighted with a spotlight. The words were the theme of the conference: "image" on the left side facing the congregation, and "insight" on the right-hand side. 

I swept my arm across the imaginary horizontal line created by the words, and spoke of the "plane of theology," the words describing both the conference theme and our theological work. Moving my hand and arm vertically, I drew an imaginary line from the stained glass window at the top of the wall, through the cross(partly obscured by the screen)and down to the screen. I named it the "plane of theophany," the light of God streaming through the red and blue glass ofthe window, coming down all the way to the screen. 

The plane of theology and our words about God were crossing the plane of theophany, the light of God, and meeting in the small, fragile cross. All of the color of the window and the words of the theme were anchored in the cross, the symbol of the incarnation of human love and suffering, the courage and giftedness of the human spirit, and the power of God to raise new life out of the chaos of death. 

At that moment, the screen, positioned large and central on the floor of the chancel, was bathed in the blue light from the stained glass window high above!  I then spoke of how the blue in the window represented the waters of life and the waters of the baptism and how the reds in the window symbolized the power of the Holy Spirit to call the church forward. Then I pointed to the ways that the blue colors now colored the top portion of the screen, “baptizing” the screen and incorporating it into the community of faith.

I named the screen as a servant of the Word and the Light, a means of revelation during our worship, and then proceeded to begin the worship service with the formal Call to Worship and Gathering Prayer. 

The screen, as a medium of God's revelation, can help us see and live differently. What can be seen as an architectural intrusion can also be understood as a participant in the holy trinity of word, light, and flesh. 

The screen is not a neutral, silent participant in worship. It is a medium for words and imagery.  

This is no less true today, as churches all over the country take their educational events, worship services, and community building sessions out of their church buildings and into our homes, where we gather around our personal screens on computers and smartphones. These screens serve Word and Light as effectively as those in our sanctuaries.

Sally McFague has written that our task "is to become aware of God's presence. We are called to see differently... and then to live differently” and the screens we bring into our worship spaces, and into our homes, can help us do this work.

As Marshall McLuhan has said, “the medium is the message.” 

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