Archive for November 19th, 2013

Icon corner

On Sunday the power went out in church again. For a moment the voice of the priest no longer had artificial amplification, and the altar was lit only by candles. Alas, it only lasted a moment. I thought of this essay, which I wrote in 1991, for the first issue of Caelum et Terra, the print magazine I edited, and which is the remote precursor for this weblog:


In the world of technology, which is a creation of man, it is not the Creator whom one first encounters; rather man encounters only himself.

– Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

The  term ““Luddite”” is a lot like the term ““fundamentalist”.” Just as anyone who questions modernity and the mythos of progress is called a fundamentalist, so anyone who questions an uncritical acceptance of technology is labelled a Luddite. This is part of the general erosion of language endemic in this era, an erosion contributed to by nearly every subsect on the political/religious spectrum. (Other examples: “fascist,” “communist,” “Jansenist,” “heretic”.) Nevertheless, it should be apparent that there really are fundamentalists in the world, i.e., Protestants of a particular theological outlook. Likewise, there are in fact Luddites out there who trace their own attitudes toward technology to the 19th-century English weaver Nedd Ludd and his followers, who invaded the mills, destroying the new textile machinery which they saw as a threat to their way of life.

I confess, at the outset of this essay, if not to being a Luddite, at least to having some “neo-Luddite” sympathies. That is, I think Nedd Ludd was essentially correct, that a way of life was destroyed by the industrial revolution and replaced by something less human. That he was not realistic or prudent in his response also seems true, if his purpose was practical and not just prophetic (many Luddites were hung for their acts of sabotage).

The editors of Caelum et Terra propose, among other things, to allow a forum for discussion on technology and culture and to allow critical voices to be heard. I propose then to discuss the problem as it relates to Caelum, only touching on the huge question of its relation to Terra.

I begin, in good Catholic fashion, with a syllogism: 1. Whenever technology does not humanize it dehumanizes (diminishes man). 2. Whatever diminishes man diminishes his capacity to receive God. 3. Therefore bad technology is spiritually alienating and destructive to the soul.

It should be evident that in many instances the conclusion drawn about a particular piece of technology will depend upon many factors besides the piece of technology itself. Thus, in spite of my latent Luddism, I have been convinced by experience that in general, while not great technology—  -it is noisy, undependable, and pollutes-  —the chainsaw is a defensible tool. To saw a winter’’s worth of wood by hand takes an ungodly long time and a huge output of energy, but with a chainsaw it is a couple of days’’ labor (depending on the latitude). It seems the time and energy saved make it worth enduring the noise and smell. But this is not absolute: if the time saved is spent building, planting, praying, playing with kids or some other holy endeavor it is a worthwhile exchange. If it’s spent watching TV one would be better off sweating over the woodpile. Other technologies may seem more black and white. An electric knife or can opener, for example, seems to be about as senseless a piece of gadgetry as can be conceived, except for the arthritic or handicapped. And some folks, I am told, regularly drive to spas where they then pay money to walk on treadmills.

Yet it is when we turn to the realm of worship that I will take the strictest line possible (go ahead, call me a Jansenist): whatever, in the act of worship, distances man from the earth and simple human experience in the least without a correspondingly huge payoff is evil.

An obvious example of technology affecting worship is the use of microphones in churches. Though most people can be trained to project their voices effectively, in a large space electronic amplification may be a help to the aged or those in the back pews. However, as things now stand, microphones are unquestioningly seen as essential, when in fact in most churches they are superfluous and a hindrance to worship, especially congregational singing. I have seen this uncritical use of amplification reach absurd levels: prayer meetings of no more than fifty people featuring a soundman with a soundboard and headphones and a tangle of wires everywhere; morning prayer from the Liturgy of Hours with perhaps ten people scattered around a large church led by a woman with a microphone (whose voice completely dominated) while a small side chapel sat unused.

It seems we are so trained to be enthused about gadgetry that it never occurs to ask the most basic questions regarding its use: is this helpful? is it serving its purpose? is it worth the hassle?

In the area of sacred music, in particular, there is a lack of critical thinking. We will not here deal with the easy target of much modern Church music, which is about as conducive to true worship as a Barry Manilow song is to High Romance (“for our closing hymn we will sing ‘”Have a Nice Day, God”). Rather, I would like to look at the instruments of musical worship.

The only musical instrument, to my knowledge, officially recommended by the Latin Church is the pipe organ. Other instruments are permitted, though as is typical in Church documents, specifics are avoided, leaving room for interpretation (and misinterpretation). Vatican II’’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy does, however, state that “”those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions”.” I would maintain that, at the least, in “mainstream” American culture this would eliminate electric guitars, basses and drums but it may well exclude a wider range of instrumentation.

Last summer I visited a small church nestled in the rolling cornfields and wooded hills of southern Michigan. I was primed for an experience of the “simple rural faithful” at prayer. The candles were lit on the altar, the rosary beads rattled against the pews and the wind sang in the maples outside the stained glass windows. As we stood for the entrance hymn, however, my reverie was quickly put to flight. To my horror, from the choir loft came a familiar cha-cha-cha beat. In an instant, the image of every music store in every shopping mall I’d ever been in came to mind: it was the drum machine on one of those synthetic electric organs. Shades of the roller rink! The organist continued to experiment with his palette of sound effects throughout the Mass, to my increasing distress. It is arguable whether such an instrument is even “suitable for secular music” but it is certainly unsuitable for the Mass. Indeed, until recently, all electric organs were banned from church use. It’s a ban I’’d like to see reinstated, for the simple reason that it is not real organ music that is created by those machines; it is not the sound of wind and wood and reed but a simulation, an organ-like sound bearing the same relation to organ music as Cheez Whiz does to true cheddar: roughly approximate, if it’’s been a long time since you’ve tasted the real thing.

An even more troubling development is the growing use of recorded music in the liturgy. Bad enough that we have an electronic imitation of real instrumentation. At least the electric organ is played by human hands. Recorded music is not even a human act, it is a mere record of a human act. As such it is radically unsuitable for worship. While perhaps fine for entertainment, the use of the tape in liturgy is in fact sacrilegious, for no machine can worship God. I know that those who flip the switches do not intend any disrespect. Indeed, they are trying to offer something more beautiful than the parish choir can offer. But they have not thought things through. The least tuneful croaker in the congregation can offer to God what the most sophisticated CD player cannot: a heart of praise.

I realize that the argument is made that the purpose of beautiful recorded music in Church is not to substitute for congregational worship but rather to stimulate it. After all, isn’t a recorded Bach cantata more inspiring than Mrs. O’Malley’’s off-key rendition of “”Holy God We Praise Thy Name””? Perhaps, but this reasoning betrays a fundamental error: the idea that the purpose of liturgy is to stimulate religious experience, that the end of religious practice is to create a state of mind, rather than to reach out to God. This is what I call “spiritual technology” and is at the root of false spirituality from Hindu fakirs to New Age crystal gazers. It is fundamentally a denial of grace, for spiritual effects cannot be produced by human technique. However well meaning, when a liturgist’’s primary aim is to manipulate the congregation’’s emotions rather than to worship God, it is misplaced. One might say that genuine religious experience is like happiness: always elusive when pursued directly, it arises more as the side effect of the pursuit of some other good.

Another area in which unreality seems to be gaining is in the realm of light itself, perhaps the primal archetype of the divine. One instance of this is the growing use of fake candles on the altar. Now, I have nothing against the use of oil lamps in worship. An oil lamp can be a beautiful thing. What is objectionable is that these new contrivances are made to look like candles and that they burn, not an oil pressed from olives or sunflowers, but some form of petroleum derivative. They are thus artificial devices, phony candles, connoting not the growing things of the earth but rather the chemical factory. A petroleum derivative is a thing pumped from the dark depths of the earth, with its origin in the death and decay of living things. Contrast this with a vegetable oil, derived from a living plant, sprung from the earth, grown in the sunlight, nourished by the rain, and pressed at the very peak of growth. Or contrast it with the traditional beeswax, gathered from a thousand flowers and burning with a sweet scent reminiscent of its origins in the meadows of summer. The scent of a petroleum-burning oil lamp, on the other hand, suggests something more in the line of the New Jersey turnpike.

But it gets worse. At least the pseudo-candle burns with a real flame. That is more than can be said for electric vigil lights, perhaps the greatest triumph of the pragmatic over the aesthetic in the modern church. The ancient and universal act of lighting a candle, with all its primeval suggestions, has been replaced by slipping a quarter in a slot and making a light bulb flash on. The religious act has been reduced to a cash transaction. That such devices have been installed without revolt from the laity is indicative of both the poverty of symbol in this culture and its enslavement to the insurance industry (cited by the clergy as the reason for these votive machines).

What a loss this is. A flame is a universal symbol of the soul at prayer, transformed by love in the presence of the Lord, burning steadily until it has offered all it has and is extinguished. The only symbolic connotation a light bulb has is the cartoonish “bright idea.” As such, perhaps it is more symbolic than its designers reckon: here is modern man, not consumed and transfigured by the Divine fire, but proudly glowing with his own bright ideas, fueled by hard cash.

One could go on cataloging artificiality in worship (reproductions instead of original art, synthetic vestments instead of natural fibers, etc.) but I think the point is evident. The Church in its humanity is always to some extent the child of its milieu. It is called, though, to be the Mother and former of cultures, to transcend and correct particular societal shortcomings. This is particularly urgent when it finds itself in the post-Christian consumerist society (Ratzinger’s “anti-culture of death”).

Some, of course, may view this critique as basically cranky. There is, I admit, a danger of crankishness here. We must be wary and charitable. I know, for example, of a parish that is guilty of most of the evils I’ve outlined but is also marked by orthodox preaching and a lively sense of community. We must remember that one can be good and morally upright without being particularly reflective or sensitive to beauty. Therese of Liseux, I am told, had tastes in religious art bordering on schlock. Better bad taste than bad theology.

But having said that, I don’’t think these concerns are of no consequence. The three traditional paths to God are the Good, the True and the Beautiful. While one could argue that Goodness is the one thing necessary, that must not lead to the devaluing of Truth or Beauty. And the artificial and the simulated are neither true nor beautiful. This criticism is rooted in the fundamental Catholic intuition that the world is sacramental, that earthly realities image heavenly realities, that things have meanings that resonate deeply in the human psyche. We in the industrial, video-saturated world do not recognize this truth because we have to a large extent been cut off from created things. We have substituted a man-made secondary reality for things-in-themselves, for primal experience of the world as it is. As the Dominican Conrad Pepler said nearly forty years ago in his brilliant book Riches Despised:

    The nature of religion springs from our dependence upon God the Creator and the Lover of persons. But man has himself interposed so many “middle men” or middle things between God and man that the essential dependence is mostly not felt and quite forgotten. The dependence he experiences today is a dependence upon machinery and markets, upon “production” rather than upon living growth. For this reason it has been rightly said that modern industrialized man is not so much a materialist, for he shows no respect for the material universe, but rather is impious in the true sense of the word, having turned away from the Father with a sweeping act of impiety. He has no god but himself, and the graven images he has made of metal and plastic.

In simple and specific terms, we are not repulsed by the plug-in vigil machine because we have not sat in a room lit only by candles, or warmed only by the hearth. Thus because we lack appreciation for the realities of Light and Fire, they are robbed of their symbolic impact in the depths of our souls. Our senses and imagination have become numb. We no longer see that the synthetic cannot replace the natural in life, let alone in worship.

Otherwise, we may as well attempt to use grape Kool-Aid in the Eucharist or motor oil for anointing (I have actually seen these things done among Pentecostal friends).

But, no, things have meaning. Grace builds on nature. The world is sacramental. There is, in Hopkins’ words, “a dearest freshness deep down things.” It is our difficult task to reaffirm these simple truths to a world intoxicated with falsity, in which men and women have betrayed their vocations as co-creators and have chosen to distort rather than to reveal the truth of creation.

Read Full Post »