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Archive for the tag “Marshall Mcluhan”

Psychedelic Christian Worship

Psychedelic Christian Worship — thecages: “But it blows my mind that this state, an explosion of the mind, is what these albums emphasise of the worship experience. What’s important here is not the presence of God, but the worshiper’s own glowing mind.”

This post interested me for two reasons.

One was the title, “psychedelic Christian worship”. That interested me because nearly 40 years ago I was fired by the then Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, for my part in organising what was described as a “psychedelic service” in St Columba’s Anglican Church in Greenwood Park, Durban.

The second reason was that it highlighted the widely divergent meanings of the word “worship” among Christians of different backgrounds and traditions.

I suppose I first became aware of the divergence when I visited one of those new hypermarket consumer churches that have now become so common, Christian City at Elandsfontein near Germiston. After a period of rather loud singing the cheerleader said, “Now THAT’S worship!” And I wondered , “What’s worship”? It didn’t strike me as particularly worshipful. It was just loud singing with an even louder accompaniment.

And the post quoted above in thecages puts a finger on this changed meaning: What’s important here is not the presence of God, but the worshiper’s own glowing mind.

And this meaning has to be taken into account when adherents of hypermarket churches use terms like “worship leader” or “worship service” or “time of worship”. The last one gives the clue, because it exposes the underlying assumption that if there is a “time of worship” there is also a time of non-worship.

The “psychedelic service” at Greenwood Park was a somewhat different thing. It was planned by an ecumenical youth group linked to the Christian Institute, some of whom were members of the parish of Greenwood Park. After firing me the Anglican Bishop of Natal preached in the church the following Sunday, and told the congregation that their church had been “profaned” by what we had done.

What had we done?

As I wrote in my journal for 1 June 1969:

The service started a bit late, because we did not want to start before everyone was in. Martin Goulding and Geoff Moorgas then played “Lead kindly light” as a violin and cello duet, sitting in the vestry, while the church was in darkness. Then I shouted “let there be light” and played “Doctor Do-good” by the Electric Prunes at full volume while Sue Abbott at the back of the church flashed the lights on and off in time to the beat. Then we had lessons and hymns alternating – Genesis 1, the creation and separation of light and darkness, and then sang “Thou whose almighty word”. Then another reading “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” and we sang “Oh freedom”. Then another lesson, from John’s gospel “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”, and we sang “We shall overcome”. And then from 1 Peter, “… a holy nation, a royal priesthood, led out of darkness into his marvellous light” and then Revelation 21 and 22 – the new Jerusalem, where there is no need for sun or moon, because Christ himself is the light of his people, and sang “Lights above, celestial Salem”. Then we had the offering, and passed round a collection plate filled with half cents and asked people to take some, saying that it was to remind us that we could give nothing to God, because everything we gave to him we first received from him.

Dick Usher read a litany while Martin Goulding projected slides showing light sources. Then Colin Butler, dressed as a night watchman in army greatcoat and Basotho hat, sitting in front of a brazier, about to begin his soliloquy about being all alone in the darkness when the band cut in and all sang “This little light of mine”, while members of the congregation came up and lit tapers or sparklers. Then we began singing “Lord of the dance”, but after three verses Geoff stopped it and said “Come on everybody, don’t just sit there, stand up and sing it with everything you’ve got.” Now they all stood up and sang it, better this time, with Roy Holden and Mervin Josie clapping from the back of the church. We sang it through a couple more times and then stopped. Nobody moved.

I asked “Do you want to sing it again?” “Yes” they all shouted. So we sang it several more times, and this time people moved out of their pews and moved round the church, dancing and singing, until everyone moved out, except for Mitch Lewis, one of the churchwardens, and some aunties at the back. Eventually they all danced out into the street, and it ended there, with people still holding lighted tapers, and all happy and smiling and excited. I have never seen such happy and smiling people coming out of church before.

Howard Trumbull shouted “Alleluia! Praise the Lord! It was great”, and several other people came and said similar things to us. I went back into to the church to try and get things straightened out, and then Mitch Lewis and Tom Abrahams, the churchwardens, asked me to go to the Vestry and said they didn’t want to do another service next week because many people had been offended by this one. I doubted very much that many people had been offended, because most of them looked so happy, but said if that was the case, probably the best thing to do would be to arrange a meeting later in the week and try to sort it out, and we could explain what we had been trying to do. Dick Usher was supposed to have come to the morning service to explain to the congregation what was going to happen in the evening, but he had overslept, and I apologized to them for that. Afterwards we went to have tea in the crypt and discussed it with some of the parishioners who were anti. One of them said he thought church services should be quiet, and this one was too loud – after all, Jesus never raised his voice. Martin Goulding muttered that he just overturned a few tables when he wanted to emphasize a point. Later we went to Geoff’s house, but Dick Usher and Sue Abbott didn’t come. Sue was in tears, having been attacked by a subdeacon called Dennis Pennington, who, I gather, is the big wheel of the parish. We thought that the service was great. Geoff said he had had doubts about it before, but the proof of the pudding was in the eating, and it made very good eating indeed.

It wasn’t really “psychedelic”, though in those days anything with bright colours, loud music and flashing lights was often called “psychedelic”. It was also ironic that within a few years the hymn Lord of the dance, which the Bishop of Natal had described as “blasphemy and profanity” became one of the most popular hymns sung at school assemblies in the UK.

Why did we do it?

I can’t speak for the others who took part in the planning and leading of the service, but were several things that had influenced me:

  • An experimental drama festival at Durham University in June 1968
  • Reading the works of Marshall McLuhan
  • A seminar on Orthodox worship for non-Orthodox theological students held at Bossey, Switzerland in April 1968, followed by Holy Week and Easter services at St Sergius in Paris
  • Talking to Walter Hollenweger about liturgy and worship at the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva

For me it was an attempt to make worship more “holistic”. Western Protestant worship at that time seemed to me to be too didactic and primarily verbal. Anglican services compiled at the time of the Reformation (and largely still in use) had been designed with the primary purpose of edification.

The drama festival at Durham (where I was then studying) attracted people from all over Britain, and several of them had been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, with his idea of “the medium is the message”. While attending the seminar on Orthodox theology and worship at Bossey, a friend and I had taken the train to Geneva to talk to Walter Hollenweger, then on the staff of the World Council of Churches. He said that if we wanted to learn about liturgy, we should look at journalists.

And Orthodox worship seemed more holistic, and not entirely verbal. The Holy Week and Easter services made a deep impression on my, especially the way that words and actions were integrated, for example in the Easter kiss followed by the reading of the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom.

So in this so-called “psychedelic service” we were striving for something that would be more symbolic, and less verbally didactic, something more holistic, involving all the senses.

Looking back on it now, I see that we were still quite a long way off the mark. Whatever it was, it still was not really worship. It was more like theatre, and still didactic. The aim of it ultimately boiled down to giving the congregation a learning experience, even if it was a multimedia experience rather than a purely verbal harangue. In that sense, it was still directed at altering the minds of the congregation rather than worshipping God. We were didactic, in that we were trying to teach the congregation about worship, rather than actually worshipping.

The week after the “psychedelic” service most of the Anglicans in our group, annoyed at the reaction of the Bishop of Natal, went to the Divine Liturgy at the local Orthodox Church. The priest welcomed us publicly. He had read all about the controversy in the newspapers, and was sympathetic.

But it still took me a few more years to realise that real worship was liturgy, the work (or service) of the people. It was not primarily theatre, and nor was it primarily didactic. Worship was not to be directed at the minds of the congregation, but at God.

The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism

The following article was originally published in Ikon, Vol 1, No 1, Winter 1969. I am republishing it in this blog. Readers should remember that it is over 40 years old. See the end of the article for explanatory notes

The most fundamental division between Christians has been that between East and West. The differences between churches of the West, ‘Catholic’, ‘Protestant’ and even ‘Pentecostal’ have been almost insignificant by comparison.

The Reformation has been seen as one of the most formative experiences of Christians in Western Europe. It changed not only the Protestant churches, but in the Counter Reformation the Roman Catholic Church experienced a similar process. But the Reformation took place in the context of social and economic changes in Europe, and one factor that had great influence on the Western churches was the invention of printing.

Marshall Mcluhan, one-time Professor of Literature of the University of Toronto, has made a study of the effects of different communications media on society. Before the Renaissance, he claims, the culture of Europe was primarily aural. Communication was through the ear rather than the eye. Written documents were in manuscript and could reach wider audiences only by being read aloud in public. The Christian art of both East and West was similar in pattern and style. Both East and West used ikons – generally in mosaic – to proclaim the Christian gospel. The mosaic ikons in 13th century Italian churches do not differ markedly from those in the Byzantine churches in Greece and Asia Minor. The pictures were standardised, and followed a set pattern. Later, when in the Eastern Churches the ikons came to be painted on wood, the style changed to accommodate the new medium, but the theology remained basically the same.

The West, however, moved from an ear culture to an eye culture. The ear has no ‘point of view’ – sounds come from all directions and are accepted as an inclusive environment, in which several things happen at once. The eye, however, does have a ‘point of view’. Western art came to emphasise perspective, which made the beholder the point of reference for the picture. This was also true in architecture. As Mcluhan puts it, the watchword of the Renaissance was ‘a piazza for everything and everything in its piazza’.

The invention of printing played an important part in extending the new visual stress in the West. Printed books meant that more people could have copies, more people could learn to read. The portable book could be read in privacy and isolation from others. Reading became a private, individual activity rather than the public, communal one of the manuscript culture. The private, fixed point of view became possible, and literacy conferred the power of detachment, non-involvement. The Protestant idea of ‘private interpretation of the scriptures’ presupposes a visually-oriented culture. In the Eastern churches the Scriptures are still read in public, and the ikons in the churches bring the heard word to life. The liturgy is a communal public action. In Protestant churches the liturgy loses its meaning. Public worship is based on the word. Instruction becomes more important than participation. People go to church, not so much to participate in the worship of the body of Christ, as to be instructed, edified, uplifted. In the Roman Catholic Church a similar process follows, but it is not quite so obvious. The old liturgical forms remain, but they take on a radically different meaning. Again the individual, with his private point of view, becomes the centre. The worship as a communal action disappears, and is replaced by private devotion. ‘I’ make ‘my’ communion.

The recent objection to A message to the people of South Africa by the Baptists reflects this cultural background.i The doctrine of individual, personal salvation, which, the Baptists claimed, the Message ignored in favour of a more social conception of salvation, only appeared at the Reformation. It could not have arisen before the invention of printing, when the reading of scripture became a private rather than a public activity. Jesus Christ ‘my’ personal Saviour is not a Biblical concept. In the Bible, Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world.

In South Africa, most of the evangelisation was done by literate Christians from Western Europe. They found they had to teach people to read before they could proclaim the Gospel to them. But the Africans had no written language – they lived in a tribal, aural culture. This has led to many difficulties in the churches, and the tension between these two cultures has certainly influenced the formation of Zionist Churches, which are trying, among other things, to express Christianity in a form that has meaning for people living in an aural culture.

Many of these problems might not have arisen if Southern Africa had been evangelised by the Eastern churches. The oldest African churches – those of Egypt and Ethiopia – have retained the Eastern pattern. In Eastern churches, literacy is not a prerequisite for hearing the gospel. Indeed, many of the clergy are barely literate. The Gospel is communicated by participation in a Christian community. And this is the only way in which the Gospel can really be communicated. Jesus did not leave a book of teachings – he left no writings at all – only a community filled with the Holy Spirit.

The Eastern Orthodox Christians, when they enter a church building, first kiss the ikons. To the Western, literate Christian, this seems like superstition and idolatry. But idolatry is more of a Western phenomenon. The Western church has its images – statues, which are often very lifelike. Candles are lit in front of them, and personal devotion is paid to them. A statue is three-dimensional; it is a thing in itself. You can walk around it, and it is still there. The ikons of the Eastern churches are two-dimensional. They are not there to draw attention to themselves, but to point to something beyond themselves. They are windows rather than pictures. So if I enter an Orthodox Church at Easter, I might kiss the ikon of the resurrection, and I do this to greet the risen Christ. I might light a candle in front of the ikon for the same purpose. But it is not enough just to light a candle in front of the ikon or to kiss the ikon. So I must light a candle in front of my brother who stands next to me. On Easter morning the whole congregation kisses the priest, and they Exchange the Easter greeting: ‘Christ is risen: He is risen indeed’. They kiss the ikons and the book of the Gospel and they also kiss each other, exchanging the same greeting. They kiss the ikons of the saints too, for they are also part of the congregation.ii The Eucharist looks forward to the Messianic Banquet in the New Jerusalem – when all the dead have been raised, when the final victory over evil had been won, and the new creation is consummated.

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order – Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Now according to Mcluhan the age of literacy, which has so moulded the Western churches and accentuated their schism with the East, is ending. And it is the advent of electric technology that has killed it. Electric light, the telephone, radio and television have made communication global and all embracing. News of events on the other side of the world reach us at the same time as news from the other side of town. Electric technology is turning the world into a global village. Through a medium such as television one can participate in events as much as, if not more than, one could if actually present. The same event might be seen through three, four or five differently-placed cameras – and so the individual point of view is abolished. Sound radio is, paradoxically, more ‘visual’ and akin to the printed word than television. Radio is the medium for the monologue, the instructive sermon. With the advent of television the whole concept of church broadcasting had to be altered. For radio, the printed script is adequate – the Protestant type of service, with its emphasis on the word is made for radio. On television this appears boring and static. A liturgical service, with its greater sense of participation and involvement is more suitable. With this type of communication, literacy becomes more important. We are moving into an age of symbolism, an age of neo-tribalism. A new generation is appearing whose life is built on mythical and symbolical involvement. This new generation will communicate less through the rationalist perspective of literate culture and more and more through myth and symbol.

Modern theology is at present dominated by the demythologisers, and the demythologisers are the last fling of a literate era – the culmination of the Protestant refusal to understand things in terms other than language. These bourgeois theologians of the age of literacy tell us that ‘modern man’ can no longer accept concepts like incarnation and resurrection and that we must demythologise the account of the resurrection of Jesus. But despite the modern, or rather not quite modern theologians, modern man finds it only to easy to believe in resurrection – and if they are told that they can no longer believe that Jesus rose from the dead, they will nevertheless proclaim that ‘Che Guevara lives!’, ‘Camilo Torres is not dead!’, and ‘Chairman Mao will live for 10000 years!’

Here in South Africa we are still clinging to the age of print. Verkramp politicians have sworn that we will not have television. We still cling to sound radio – a medium that reached its zenith with Hitler and Mussolini. Social researchers must find South Africa a fascinating field for study, a living fossil in a new world shaped by a new medium of communication.

Whether we like it or not we are moving into this new age, but it is an age of opportunity. It is an age when myth and symbol can easily be understood, and when the pre-literate myths and symbols of Christianity can once again be understood. And new myths and symbols can be found to express the Gospel in the new ikonic age. In every age the Church is to be the ikon of the New Jerusalem, the new human community of a world set free from sin and evil, injustice and oppression.

Epilogue

As I noted at the beginning, I wrote this article in 1969, when I was 28 years old. Quite a lot of things have changed since I wrote it, including me, and so if I were writing it today, I would not write it in the same way, though I generally stand by what I wrote back then. So I have written these notes to explain how some of the changes of the last 40 years might have affected what I wrote then.

Pentecost

One thing I would have added were I writing it now would be the ikon of Pentecost, which illustrates some of the differences. I noted that in Western Renaissance and post-Renaissance art there was an emphasis on perspective, stressing the single, individual point of view. The Orthodox ikon of Pentecost, on the other hand shows multiple perspectives. It does not show what we would have seen had we been there, but rather what most people did not see. It shows the apostles sitting in a semi-circle, receiving or waiting to receive the Holy Spirit.

The semicircle is incomplete. It shows people who were almost certainly not present on the occasion — St Luke holding the scroll of his gospel, which had not been written yet. St Paul, who was to be a persecutor of the church before he joined the circle. And because it is not a closed circle, but an open semicircle, the viewer is part of it, the circle of the apostles extends to embrace the church in which the ikon is.

In the centre of the floor is a window, and while the floor is horizontal, the window is vertical, in a dual perspective. It shows an old and weary king, Cosmos, representing the world. Like the stable in C.S. Lewis’s book The last battle the inside of the upper room is bigger than the outside, because it contains the whole world. The apostles are sent into all the world, not out to all the world. And as we look at it, we see Cosmos as our own reflection in a mirror — we are part of that old and weary world, waiting for the good news of liberation, and we are also part of the circle of the apostles, charged to take the good news into all the world. The ikon therefore has a great deal to tell us about mission.

Other differences

Here are some of the other differences, and some explanations of some of them, and some background information.

  • I was moved to republish this old article after reading an article in Matt Stone’s blog “Joureys in between”, called Tribalization and Cultural Identity. Reading Matt’s article made me realise that many concerns now being expressed in emerging church circles were similar to those we had back in the 1960s.
  • One of the changes in me since I wrote the article is that when I wrote it I was an Anglican, and I am now a member of the Orthodox Church, for reasons that should be clear from what I wrote in the article. I wrote the article for the first issue of Ikon, an “underground” Christian magazine started by me and some friends. Ikon ceased publication in 1972 when all the editors had been banned by the South African government.
  • In 1968 I returned from England, where I had studied at the University of Durham. An experimental drama festival was held at Durham, with participants from all over the UK, and from some of them I learnt about the works of Marshall McLuhan, such as The medium is the massage, Understanding media, and The Gutenberg galaxy. Not everything that McLuhan wrote about media was true or useful, but some of it was, and it helped me to appreciate some of the differences between Orthodox and Western Christianity.
  • In 1968 I attended a seminar on Orthodox theology for non-Orthodox theological students at the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Study Centre in Bossey, Switzerland, ending with Holy Week and Pascha at St Sergius in Paris. It sparked an interest in Orthodox theology that grew over the years until I joined the Orthodox Church.
  • We now have words to describe what I wrote about then. What McLuhan called “preliterate” would now be called “premodern”, and much of what I thought would subsequently happen, which I called “neotribalism”, is now called “postmodernity”. But back then we did not have those words.
  • The death of literacy did not occur. Back in the 1960s the idea of the personal computer was quite remote. McLuhan, with his talk of the “global village” foresaw globalisation, and that it would also be both global and tribal. Computer communications have spread rapidly over the last 20 years, and people who would never had typed their own letters have learned to do so. E-mail, computer discussion forums and SMS have meant that more people are using written communication than ever before.
  • In his article Matt Stone also raises questions about the relation between tribalisation and globalisation, which are not really dealt with in the article above. I hope to return to them in a later blog posting.
  • For more background, and for a tracing of developments from the 1960s to the present, see my article on Christianity, paganism and literature

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