Technology changes things. Perhaps that seems obvious; one need think only of the advances made in areas such as medicine and agriculture in the last century. But when it comes to modern media like radio, television, and the internet, we can be guilty of a certain level of naiveté about the effects of technology on our lives, especially as people of faith. In the twentieth century, religious leaders often made statements encouraging attempts at putting the ancient content of the faith in contemporary forms for the sake of “modern man.” A major part of those calls concerned the felt imperative of making use of modern media like radio and television for the advance of the gospel. Now, in the wake of the relatively recent rise of the internet (I still remember using it for the very first time and doing email in DOS), the calls grow ever louder to bring the gospel to the internet, to engage digital culture.
But the medium assuredly affects the message, even if one doesn’t want to go as far as Marshall McLuhan and assert that the medium is the message. I was glad to see Kevin White’s piece on the effects of microphones on the Mass in the recent issue of First Things (“Drop the Mic,” December 2012), for microphones have been on my mind lately as I hear homilies at Masses several times a week and as I reflect on and teach about mission, liturgy, and preaching in various contexts for the Year of Faith. Indeed, better preaching has become a major concern for Catholics recently. In 2007 in Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict baldly stated, “given the importance of the Word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved.” Quoting these words three years later in Verbum Domini, Benedict also warned against “generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word . . . as well as useless digressions.” And in recent weeks the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a major document on preaching, “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily.”
It behooves us, then, to actually think about the microphone. In most liturgical churches, the use of video screens occasions serious and sustained discussion, whereas the microphone has made its way into the sanctuary as a matter of course. But the microphone is a technological medium with real effects on preaching and liturgy; it changes things. McLuhan may be right that the technology of the microphone ultimately led to a vernacular Mass versus populum with significant lay involvement; technological determinists would tend to agree with him. Leaving that fraught question alone for the moment, I would raise a different one: Do microphones encourage poor preaching?
I think microphones might very well injure preaching, for in preaching the microphone functions as both obstacle and crutch. The microphone is an obstacle, one more piece of complexity that can go wrong. It makes preachers tentative; the microphone is like a snake that might bite if one makes a wrong move. Having used many microphones of all kinds in both public speaking situations as well as concert venues (I used to play in rock and heavy metal groups as well as praise-and-worship bands), I have learned that microphones are painfully unpredictable. We have all been in situations where they don’t function well, for whatever reason, and the result is poor sound quality (at best) or feedback (at worst). The microphone is also a crutch, since the electronics of the microphone are designed to do the work the bodies of preachers of prior ages used to do.
Microphones are therefore enervating, as the microphone affects the very nature of the homily by affecting delivery in removing much of the preacher’s body from the arduous physical task of public speaking. Good preaching generally involves a tone of authoritative proclamation, but the use of microphones encourages a quieter, conversational tone from the pulpit. Thus the proclamation of both law and gospel loses its force as preaching becomes something either casual or intellectual. The preacher transmits either banalities or mere information, and the congregation misses a potential transformative encounter with the Word of God.
Technologies have unintended, undesired, and often ironic effects. One such ironic effect of microphones in preaching is the increased distance between preacher and congregation. We do not hear our preachers directly from their lips, but at another remove, from the speakers. To me, this seems to cut against the grain of good preaching, which ought to be both interpersonal (ideally, we have a good relationship of trust with our preacher) and incarnational (as the word of the homily rooted in the word of Scripture proclaims and makes present the Word of God, Jesus Christ). In evading the role of the body, the microphone subtly supports a soft sort of Gnosticism, like most modern technologies.
Could we drop the mic? Certainly. Of course we will continue to employ technology in our lives and in our religion, but we needn’t be slaves to technological determinism. Dropping the mic would necessitate cultivating the art of classical oratory as well as constructing sanctuaries designed to carry the human voice, just as the use of the microphone (I would suggest) has relegated homiletics to an afterthought for many seminarians and encouraged uninspired ecclesiastical architecture. “A microphone allows its user to impose his voice . . . on many more people than an ancient orator could,” White writes, and it’s certainly true. The technology exists today where it would be possible for a single speaker to address all seven billion people on the planet at once. But ancient orators could address multitudes of people, many more than attend most churches on a given Sunday. Think no further than Jesus addressing the crowds at the Sermon on the Mount.
Leroy Huizenga is Chair of the Department of Theology and Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Kevin White, Drop the Mic
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