Sunday, June 10, 2012
An Over Heated Episcopal Liturgy
I am a real disciple of the Canadian scholar Marshal McLuhan. I had the good fortune of knowing him as an adviser in my graduate studies in the seventies. A leading figure today in Postmodern philosophy is Graham Harman of the University of Amsterdam who finds great agreement between Heidegger and McLuhan.
Harman finds McLuhan's greatest achievement is his last work Laws of Media,where he establishes his famous culture and media theory of the tetrad. Harman suggests that the tetrad is the single biggest intellectual discovery not only of our time, but of at least the last couple of centuries. McLuhan's culture theory of the tetrad holds every medium can be described in terms of four polarities; enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal.
The law of reversal means what does the media function enhance, intensify, make possible or accelerate e.g the computer made possible the speed of calculations, transmission and retrieval of information.
The law of obsolescence is a consequence of extension. When a medium fulfills the function of extending the body or replacing another medium. For example, when the car replaced the horse, it did away with blacksmiths, saddle makers , harness menders, hitching posts, horse troughs, carts and stage coaches.
Retrieval is when older structures and environments or older forms of action, human organization and thought are revived by the introduction of a new medium. For example iphone texting retrieves communication by touch, the telegraph.
Reversal is when technology is pushed to its limits, and the media is overheated or over extended. It, in turn, creates the opposite of its intended function. McLuhan was a very devout and conservative Roman Catholic, but he was also a postmodern scholar. He said that he probed into media because he found it disturbing. Yet, he maintained if the Church was to remain a dynamic force in the world, it must probe into the relationship between culture, media, and religion. When he explained the law of retrieval, Bishops and theologians squirmed. For example, he predicted the Catholic mass lost its sense of mystery when the microphone was introduced. The electronic microphone was to enhance sound and extend the human voice, but it had the opposite effect of taking away mystery. The Latin mass worked until the microphone was introduced.
Before applying the tetrad to Episcopal worship two other McLuhan concepts are important. One, McLuhan has a broad definition of media. All media are an extension of the human nervous system, the body. For example, eye glasses are an extension of the eye, cars are an extension of movement, the pen is an extension of the hand and written words are an extension of thoughts. Get the idea. Second, media rub and blend together. It is the an invisible phenomenological hybrid that works on our senses. For example, when we celebrate the Eucharist there is a hybrid of media such as vestments, table, written words, books, bread, wine, instruments and regimented bodily movements etc.
Okay, after this brief explanation of the McLuhan model, let's apply it to Episcopal worship. I refer to our style of worship as Print Dominated Liturgy because in our liturgical media hybrid print is by far the most dominant medium.
The Tetrad of Episcopal Worship
Enhance: Print liturgy amplifies the notion of a personal relationship with God. It nurtures the individual spiritual capacity for discerning scripture though critical reason and analytic sermons. Episcopalians love to sit quietly in worship in an extremely individualistic and private space with God and wonder if the sermon was relevant.
Reverse Into. Print liturgy taken to an extreme reduces the gospel to a gospel for one and turns it into abstract propositions to be believed. It also creates the illusion that we can see the truth with perfect objectivity.
Retrieves: Print liturgy retrieved Paul's epistles for the Church. The stained glass windows used prior to print were ill suited to convey the abstract and highly rational prose of Paul. When we introduce screens into worship, we return to gospel narratives and testimonies.
Obsolesces: Print liturgy has a tendency to obsolesce communal faith. It erodes the intuitive and feeling aspect of faith along with our appreciation for mystery.
Using the tetrad, I suggest that our print dominated liturgy is over heated. Here is a metaphor. When we over heat vegetables they lose all their nutritional power. When we over heat the liturgy, we lose spiritual energy.
Well, where is the hope? Where is the solution? Well, let's look again and reconstruct our liturgy around the Lord's Supper and the Celtic model. By the way, do not look for leadership from a print dominated House of Bishops and print dominated seminaries. Furthermore, I doubt if the issue of liturgical deconstruction and reconstruction will really come up at the coming National Convention. I mean talk about an over heated gathering where Episcopalians will discuss abstract propositions.