Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Pastoral Concern -- Virtual vs. Reality

I grew up watching TV.  For better or for worse, my family regularly quotes from TV shows or movies.  Even one of my children has commented that we do that too much.  So, I am not entirely a Ludite who despises technology.

While I do not despise technology, I do have concerns about how dependent--better: addicted--we are to it.  (And yes, I understand the irony of posting this little rant on the internet.)  Consider how screens permeate our lives -- television, movie screens, cell phones, I-phones, Ipads, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Skype, X Box, Playstation, etc.....  Am I overstating our addiction to watching a screen instead of looking at real things?  Consider: When people go to a rock concert, do they look at the band on the stage or at the large screens above the stage?  After all, they paid to see the band, not the screen.  When there is a celebrity sighting or a momentous occasion, do people watch it unfold or do they view it through a smart phone as they record it?

I remember seeing a clip of a Dallas Cowboys game.  The camera was on one sideline zooming in on a deep throw to the opposite side line.  Just outside the field of play, there were fans on the side line watching the action.  The irony?  They were all watching the jumbotron instead of the play 20 feet in front of them.  (If anyone can find this on YouTube, please provide the link in the comments.  I saw it on an ESPN "C'mon, man!" segment.  Date unknown.  I can't find it now, though.)

If you want to watch a screen so much, why pay to go to the stadium?  We have TV's at home.
Granted, the jumbotron at AT&T stadium is impressive.  I suppose you could argue that many people get a better image of the game blown up in way-larger-than-life-size images than trying to catch the nuances of the offensive line from the 53rd row.  But for the fans on the side lines: If you want to marvel at the athleticism of the wide receiver and the cornerback contesting the ball, how about looking 20 feet in front of your face??????  The video screen demanded their attention more than the actual people who were running right past them!  Here, virtual dominated reality.

A virtual image can serve us well.  It is often the best option to showing us something--whether it is a photograph, a video, or even a police sketch of a suspect.  But it is hardly a fair substitute.  Why do people bother going to the Grand Canyon every year?  Just Google it!  Here you go:

The Grand Canyon.  Bucket List -- check!
You've just saved all kinds of time and money from your summer vacation.  You've experienced the Grand Canyon in the image above!  Oh,'s not the same?  No, it isn't.  Not even close.  Reality is far superior to virtual.

Even when we are watching the video of a loved one, it is not the same as actually being with a loved one.  Skype may be the best option available for families to stay in contact, but I can't imagine any grandparent being content to see the virtual images of their grandchildren on Christmas morning rather than hugging, kissing, and talking with them in person.  Reality far outweighs virtual, even when virtual is the best option available.

This is not a rant from some curmudgeon who longs for the simpler times of the good old days.  This is a pastoral concern about seeing our addiction to technology.  More specifically, it is about seeing that addiction invade the sacred space of the church.  It seems that, even in church, people prefer to live in a virtual world than to focus on the reality of sin, death, and God's presence among his people.  And THAT is alarming.

I am not unfamiliar with the arguments for employing video screens in the church.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that, for the most part, people want to do it because A) we can, and B) it's cool.  Just because we can does not mean we should.  It seems to me that video screens end up making the Church look like a secular venue and/or making worship become entertainment.  Look at the photos below.  One is a worship service.  One is a rock concert.  Can you tell which is which?

Image result for megachurch worship

Granted, the image of the worship service above is an extreme, though not uncommon, case.  (By the way, the top one is the worship service; the bottom one is a rock concert which actually has one less video screen.)  I suspect most churches have the video screens to print the lyrics of hymns, the parts of the liturgy, and announcements.  But even using the screens to print hymns, liturgy, et al., has problems inherent with it which is outside the scope of this little rant.  Perhaps that's another issue of A Pastoral Concern.  My main concern here is that video screens draw our attention to themselves above all else.  If they demand our attention at every other venue, what would make this different in church?  If our attention in the sacred space is drawn to video screens, then they distract from Christ.

What is the focal point of a church?  Take a look below.

Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church, of Novi, Michigan.  Easter 2016.
The altar is the central feature of the chancel and, therefore, the focal point of the church.  Why?  Because an altar proclaims sacrifice.  That's what altars are for.  It keeps us mindful of the atoning sacrifice that Jesus made for us in his crucifixion.  Of course, that sacrifice was a once-for-all death.  It does not need to be repeated.  Therefore, our altar does more than testify of sacrifice.  It is also the table from which we receive the Lord's Supper.  The body and blood of the Lord are on the altar.  What else would you expect to find on an altar but a body and blood?

From the altar, we receive the true body and blood of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ.  The Sacrament of the Altar is not a symbolic act.  The bread and wine are not representations.  (The video screen provides only representations!)  What we have on the altar is exactly what Jesus said: "This is my body.  This is my blood."  They are reality.  That which Jesus gave into death for the forgiveness of our sins is given to us for the forgiveness of our sins.  We tangibly, really feast on the body and blood of the Lord, partaking in his atoning sacrifice, consuming his salvation, and receiving forgiveness of sins and strengthening of faith.  These are not virtual.  Just as the body and blood of Jesus are reality, so are the gifts they provide.  We do not receive symbolic forgiveness and salvation.  What good would that do?  Here, reality means real forgiveness and real salvation.

Distractions will always find their way into the church.  Children will cry.  Minds will drift.  The pastor can lose his place in the liturgy.  These will happen, but they are unintentional and can be overlooked.  It is different when the distraction is invited into the church and given an intentionally prominent place.  Now when you factor in how addicted we are to looking at video screens, the distraction becomes the main feature.

In virtual vs. reality, reality is always better.  The video screen, however, highlights the virtual.  It draws our attention away from what is real.  We end up focusing on virtual rather than reality.  That is alarming, and it certainly is not the best.  Projected images may be cool.  They may dazzle.  They can even be entertaining.  But Jesus does not come to us through video screens.  Jesus did not come to be cool or to dazzle, and certainly not to entertain.  Jesus came to save, to forgive, and to bless.  He still comes to us--now through the word which is preached by a flesh and blood minister and through the sacraments which are administered under real world elements of water and bread and wine.  Our worship, and therefore our attention, should be focused on what is real rather than on what is projected or virtual.

Real forgiveness only comes from real gifts--most vividly given, seen, smelled, felt, and tasted from the altar.  This is where our attention deserves to be.