On Faith and the Mass Media

20 02 2009


A Reply to Daniel Mitsui

I find Daniel Mitsui in general to be an insightful man, though I don’t always agree with him. He is one of the few people that I have encountered who has a similiar view of the Church and modernity as I have, though we differ starkly on some very key issues. In this light, here is a reply I sent privately to Mr. Mitsui to one of his latest posts, The Eucharist and the Mass Media :

I just read your essay on the Eucharist and the mass media, and as you suggested, I will tell you my thoughts about it. Truth be told, I didn’t feel particularly affected by it since I have never been prone to thinking that pixels are the real thing, nor have I ever mistaken a multi-media experience for a “spiritual” one. I don’t listen to Gregorian chant on a CD or an MP3 player, I have never watched a televised Mass with the idea that I was “participating” in it, nor do I think that mass media is especially healthy for religion. As I wrote in my last post, I think the media was largely responsible for the last Pope being able to “rule” (not necessarily govern) the Church by photo-op, and the fact that the mass outpouring of “devotion” after his death has subsided quite a bit (the euphoria of “santo subito!”) demonstrates that religious mass media is just as fleeting as any other kind.

That being said, I am not a big fan of reactionary or Luddite rhetoric. It is not that I don’t see the point of your argument of the affects of the media on the human mind (that is a struggle that I fight myself as I am checking Facebook twenty times a day for no apparent reason). Nor is it because I actually admire cinema as an art form. I simply think that such arguments always assume an unjustified median to measure the rest of society by, and the comparisons can thus be overly-romanticized. While others can see the profound human value in a bunch of guys telling a dirty joke around the hearth a hundred years ago, I am under no real impression that such things are healthier to the human soul than the same men sitting around the T.V. watching a football game now. I can’t help but see these things as the same phenomena, simply a hundred years removed. People have always been shallow, highly impressionable, and impatient when it comes to the loftier things in life. There is no use harping on this or that technology since, at worse, the only thing that one is having is nostalgia for a past that never occurred. Technology only magnifies bad tendencies that were already there in the first place.

Nevertheless, I think you make some very strong points in your article. I especially liked the following passage:

“A lifetime of moviegoing creates in a man a sense of spectatorial entitlement. He who pays ten dollars to see a movie feels that he is owed certain production values and conventions of direction and editing. Any important lines should be recorded audibly, and dubbed or subtitled if spoken in a foreign language. Any important actions should be filmed from unobstructed angles, close enough so that details may be seen. If the moviegoer is unable to see, hear or understand something, he feels cheated, and criticizes the movie. When he attends Mass, these same expectations often come with him – and the very idea of a silent Canon, of untranslated Latin, of veils and screens, of a priest with his back to the people becomes offensive.

Marshall McLuhan perspicaciously blamed the loss of Latin liturgy on the introduction of the microphone. After resisting for five centuries the Reformational idea that Mass was something to be heard, Catholics at last embraced the all-hearing principle as a result of expectations changed by technology.”

I think there is much truth here. In my own experience of the eastern liturgies, the most authentic ones anyway, I have felt that one should place the following sign on the door of the church: “Welcome to the Divine Liturgy. Expect to be bored”. A lot of church-going is about showing up and routine (glorious routine!), and the modern obsession to make liturgy as informative, edifying, and “relevant” as possible seems to me at least to be a futile attempt to make liturgy catch up with the “picture show”. There is really no other way around it; church is going to be boring and a “waste of time”. That is because modernity has a mechanistic and functionalist approach to reality, and worship is perhaps the most anachronistic and inefficient activity one can participate in within this “fast-paced” society.

I would also point out that the things you are griping about here have much deeper roots than modern technology. The first real “spiritual television” is a product of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and the “spirituality of spectacle” that also grew out of early modern devotio moderna. St. Ignatius’s running people through the “movie” of the two standards is EWTN avant la letter (ou l’image). A lot of what you say here has deeper roots than the technological evolution of the past 100 years.

I will agree with the central tenant of your essay in that I too think that there is a man-made and fantastical (not in the good sense) flavor to modern religiosity, even in its most conservative form, and I have written on this quite a bit. People seem to make a religion of “their own little world” that has little relation to their daily life and actions. Indeed, the political divide among Christians is often the result of the existence of “imagined communities” held together by tools of the mass media: religious television networks, Internet fora, blogs, Facebook groups, etc. Here a person can pick and chose what “community” he belongs to. Even if that community is manifested in actual physical groups that meet face to face, the enforcement of the shared interests and positions of that group is facilitated by the tools of modern communication. Thus, one can be a “traditionalist” in a liberal parish who after Mass gripes on his keyboard about the liturgy he just experienced to his fellow cyber-traditionalists, or a person can find a group of people at a “special Mass” who share his hang-ups and pet peeves. I would say that these people take religion too seriously, but not in a good sense. Here we are entering into the modern realm of hobby, and maybe these inclinations would better be served with the same people dedicating themselves to re-building car engines or fly fishing on a Sunday morning. The danger is that people turn God into a toy; another gadget and instrument of instant gratification along side the MP3 player, the X-Box, TiVo etc. They mistake good-feelings and belonging for a spiritual experience; they substitute a self-selective club for the real, breathing and “flawed” Body of Christ: the Church.

In that at least, I am with you all the way. People need to start asking themselves some very hard questions, questions that may undermine how they think of religion in general. In that, I think, your essay serves some purpose…



7 responses

25 02 2009

Whew. Dum spiro, disco.

24 02 2009

“Does it therefore follow that the local parish, which forces us to associate unnaturally with hypocrites and triflers, is an anti-community because of its inclusiveness?”

Luke 18: 10-14

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee and the other a publican.
11 The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican.
12 I fast twice in a week: I give tithes of all that I possess.
13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven; but struck his breast, saying: O God, be merciful to me a sinner.
14 I say to you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other: because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

Glad to know there is no such shortage of neither Pharisees nor Donatists on this blog.

Please — be kinder to your fellow Catholics, no matter how sad or awful they are to you.

Ask yourself: What Would St. Augustine Say?

24 02 2009

The internet increases productivity by permitting the accomplishment of tasks more efficiently than the technology that predated it. Accordingly, the net permits the segmentation and specialization of conversations more efficiently than the phone or snail mail.

This means that the net fosters community too well. Community isn’t about putting up with “trolls” who don’t share our views and values. It’s about spending our time preaching to the choir.

Does it therefore follow that the local parish, which forces us to associate unnaturally with hypocrites and triflers, is an anti-community because of its inclusiveness?

23 02 2009

MASS media… 😉

23 02 2009
Matt H.

@random Orthodox chick: There have been a couple of occasions over the past few years where I’ve either given up the internet or had infrequent web access. It does wonders for one’s spiritual life. :/

23 02 2009
Matt H.

Thanks for posting this, Arturo–it’s given me a lot to think about.

21 02 2009
random Orthodox chick

And oh, can those “imagined communities” be toxic to any kind of real faith someone might have had before entering them. Advice to all catechumens should be “come to the services, pray the prayers, and stay away from the messageboards!”

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