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.


  1. Hi, Bill. As usual, your reasoning is clear and right - but I think that what you describe is not necessarily "so" in all our churches. that is to say, we do nto use screens, but we don't expect or urge people to follow in the prayer book, either - since in reality they mostly know the words - We sing a lot - and not all from the hymnal,either. They qare not quiet - since our announcements, prayer requests and actual spontaneous prayer IN the prayers of the people are often lengthy and dominated by the people's comments and prayers, not the clergy's - We make a big deal of using different kinds of real bread for each liturgical season, of decoraint dramatically for each season, etc so that I would say that in our little congregation the liturgy is NOT overheated by reliance on print - There is a great deal of trutn i what you write - I went to a funeral recently that was entirely as you say - print-determined, clergy-dominated and consequenty both dull and joy-less, privatized, as you say - but that is not the fault of the liturgical traditionwe have, but of a massive failure of imagination among the clergy... Cathy+, St Alban's, Bolivar

  2. Without having the benefit of the metaphor of "overheating," I began to feel growing dissatisfaction with eucharistic liturgy as the frequency and casual application of it to almost any situation started occurring in the late 70's. No matter what the meeting, we seemed to have to "throw in" a Eucharist. More and more I found myself as a priest and Rector trying to avoid or refuse doing "it" for just any occasion. I now know why. I didn't like canned vegetables as a child, and I don't like the equivalent in liturgy. Bill, what a helpful insight. Now we face the many tasks around retrieval of the sacrament. The Celtic models does help.

  3. Cathy, I agree with much of what you write. I also note that in the theory presented a lack of clergy imagination and effort, however important as the primary liturgical leader, is one of a concoction of problems involving: general expectations about what any eucharistic liturgy can in fact bear the weight of, the sheer frequency of celebration, issues of physical, emotional and spiritual architecture (what do I see, feel and am drawn toward in worship), relational factors of intimacy (who I am with or not) in the sacramental moment and so on, not the least of which is what used to be called "preparation for worship," or what we each bring into our sacred space (homework). Clergy imagination does not hurt! But lay and clergy leadership together, sheer planning and mutual discipline and expectation of roles, mindfulness in regard to high quality life in community and sensitivity to all contextual levels (in journalism called who, what, when,where and why) are in the mix. Thanks for sparking my thinking.

  4. That's it! Canned vegetables! The metaphor is spot on! I use "Fresh" as much as possible! And as a clergy person, I do Fresh as much as possible. It has taken me 7 years to shake some cobwebs out of the rafters. But it is now the norm rather than the "subversive" as some would want to classify it. Sometimes, we simply have to ask forgiveness, rather than permission and work outside the box. (could also stand for church...) I am an advocate of the Celtic form of Spirituality, both in my personal worship and in the life of my congregation. It has been freeing and liberating on many fronts. Thanks for a great post! Greatly appreciated and will be shared.