Hermeneutics and Hearing

Liturgy via tabletIn chapel this week—in mid-August, chapel is held in the undercroft because the only students on campus are those finishing Summer Greek—the liturgist did something I have not seen heretofore: he led the liturgy from an electronic “tablet.” What, as someone has said, does this mean? A couple of thoughts. First, my good friend and colleague Andy Bartelt has observed that a move to computer screens is effectively a return to the scroll, away from the codex. This is an interesting and far-reaching thought. The codex, as is now generally accepted, was a “technology” embraced almost immediately by Christians, and in such a way that Christian documents are from the first almost media-wise different from secular documents, which still almost universally employed scrolls. The codex allows very quick cross-referencing (which may be why it was adopted), and it is very “handy.” To return to a “scroll” format, is, essentially, to give up much of the advantage of the codex, such as flipping back and forth between sections of a book almost instantly. It is for this reason that I, for one, find it difficult to compose really serious pieces solely on a computer; it does not allow for quick moves between different pieces of writing.

Second, and more important, is the matter of hermeneutics. Almost 30 years ago (1987), Tom Boomershine presented a paper at the national meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston entitled “Biblical Megatrends: Towards a Paradigm for the Interpretation of the Bible in Electronic Media.” In this essay he stated: “…the expectation would be that major changes in communications systems are followed by paradigm shifts in Biblical interpretation.” He went on to observe that in an oral culture there was improvisation on known formulas, which provided a way of connecting present and past “by retelling or representing the material in light of later experiences.” When writing started to be prominent in the Hellenistic world (though it first was used in the service of orality), the text began to be standardized, and, as a result, a hermeneutical shift took place, especially within Christianity. Allegorical interpretation arose as a means to make the words of the texts relevant to the contemporary context. Another shift occurred with the advent of the printing press, which is something other than manuscript production. Now exact copies were possible and widely distributed. Hermeneutically, private reading and study of texts became possible, and literal/figural exegesis became dominant (cf. the rise of humanism). In the 19th century historical criticism also arose, with the texts of several authors able easily to be compared in minute detail, and such texts were increasingly seen as valuable chiefly as documentary evidence for historical facts or for ideas (see Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, whom Boomershine helpfully references). What does the current shift to electronic media suggest? Boomershine is not all that confident to say in detail. But he does observe that one thing seems sure: there is a move away from silent reading, and study without sound, as it were. This leads us back to a context of orality—hence Walter Ong’s concept of “secondary orality”—and to the characteristics of that milieu, including both its strengths and its weaknesses. And what will that mean? Personally, there’s a lot to be positive about, especially since the fundamental command to God’s people was “Hear [not See, or Think About, or Contemplate], O Israel….” (Deut. 6:4). And the Apostle teaches that “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). Perhaps this is why, on the death bed, hearing is the last sense to be lost.

We have to be serious about developments like this. It’s not just “new technology.” We may lose some things, but we may also gain some things for the hearing of the Gospel.





24 responses to “Hermeneutics and Hearing”

  1. Joshua LaFeve Avatar
    Joshua LaFeve

    Was an iPhone used by a parishioner during the chapel service to take the above picture of the liturgist leading the liturgy from an electronic “tablet”? If so, what does this mean? How do we think through the use of technology by parishioners during a worship service?

  2. Phil Booe on Facebook Avatar

    I’ve been doing it for 4 years. 🙂

  3. Harold Senkbeil Avatar

    Somewhere C S Lewis says something like: “There’s something about worship that loves not paper.” I’m pretty sure he would say much the same about electronic tablets, etc. In other words, we would do well to teach the faith (“the form of sound words”) in such a way that it is inculcated in language that reaches the heart and flows forth in praise. If we’re moving back to an oral culture rather than a print culture, so much the better…but let’s work toward learning by heart so that the Word dwells among us richly while we sing to one another in Psalms, hymns, and songs of the Spirit.

  4. Phil Booe on Facebook Avatar

    If the focus is on the medium of delivery rather than the content, the focus is off.

  5. Lucas Woodford Avatar
    Lucas Woodford

    I would contend that moving to the computer screens is decidedly not like moving back to the scroll. The scroll was limited to the reader himself and had a permanent physical reference point for the eyes of the reader, while the hearers actually used nothing but their ears and imagination as the oral text hit their ears. That’s much different than everyone looking at their computer screen with an unfixed text “scrolling” past their eyes.

    The computer screen also carries with it multiple additional interpretive fields and distractions, i.e. font style, graphics, pictures, and the learned physical stimuli and response distractions that reading via the internet and electronic media have actually created in the brain. Nicholas Carr has documented this from a secular point of view in his best selling must read “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” Touchstone magazine also gave a thoughtful and necessary consideration to this coming reality: “There seem to be both positive and negative ways to respond to the new technologies. If the Church were to respond to digitization as the Reformers did to print—by attempting to channel the new developments in constructive ways while putting mechanisms in place that would blunt the negative effects—it would be following the approach recommended by cultural critic Alan Jacobs, who has called for ‘a strategic engagement with emerging technologies of the book rather than condemning those technologies as irredeemable. . . .’ What such engagement should specifically involve in practice, however, is a question the Church will have to explore in the years to come.”

    Read more: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=25-04-040-f#ixzz3BWcwfUQl

  6. Travis Ferguson Avatar
    Travis Ferguson

    All I have to say is that my iPad case (which is red) fits in well with the upcoming reformation. If CPH started making liturgical iPad cases, we might see an increase in acceptance of the technology,

  7. James Kirschenmann Avatar
    James Kirschenmann

    This is hardly an innovation, although it may be a first for some at CSL.

    I personally have seen the “tablet” used in multiple “traditional” settings, from Greek Orthodox to Coptic. At one Coptic church I visited, the liturgy was on a “tablet”, but also displayed on 2 media screens in English | Coptic | Greek (on same display). As such, I would offer that LC-MS is decidedly lagging the Egyptian Coptic Church in use of technology for liturgy.

    Of course, in the scene pictured, the assembly was using a simple card with two sides, so it was really not an accurate representation of the capability of the “tablet” for use in liturgy. Try a liturgy (as in the Coptic Vespers), that runs for 90 minutes or more and you’ve got a real test!

    The challenge with having a liturgist holding a tablet is that it does not engage the assembly. Now if everyone in the assembly had a similar device in front of them, then maybe we would have a step forward…

    Anyone for “tablets’ mounted in the backs of the pews? No flipping back and forth and getting lost in the hymnal… if it is all “cast” from a central control, everyone would stay on the same page, and visitors could easily follow along (and engage) in the liturgy.

  8. Rev. Paul T. McCain Avatar
    Rev. Paul T. McCain

    I have a theory that if a congregation absolutely must have electricity to conduct the Divine Service, they are doing it wrong.

    I don’t mind a tablet, but …. I’d keep that trusty old dead-tree hymnal close at hand, just in case.


    1. Don Berg, retired Avatar
      Don Berg, retired

      If a trusty old dead-tree hymnal needs to be kept close at hand, then certainly the early Christians and their followers would not fit in.

      If a “scroll” limits you on your tablet you can always bring up more than one screen at a time. (I’m learning learning the technology myself)

      Here is one time I do not agree that the medium is the message. However, it still comes down to the preacher/liturgist and what he does with the Word.

    2. Rev. Daniel Ross Avatar
      Rev. Daniel Ross

      Would the fact that you work for the copy that sells such “old dead-tree hymnal[s]” affect your opinion on this matter at all?

    3. Rev. Daniel Ross Avatar
      Rev. Daniel Ross

      *company not “copy”. Sorry, writing too many things at once.

  9. Rance Settle Avatar
    Rance Settle

    Since my latest eye surgery, I’ve had difficulty seeing in low-light situations or smaller fonts, which made it almost impossible to read the hymnal, the readings during evening prayer and the midweek Lenten services. A parishioner graciously gifted me with an iPad, since the screen was backlit and could work in all light environments. I love it! I can increase the font to help my reading, I can import the Lutheran Service Builder in to Word format and increase the size of the chant tones for the Divine Service. This has served as a wonderful tool for leading worship. As with any tool, be it something off the Gutenberg press or out of Silicon Valley, we have to be careful to ensure it serves the purpose intended and my iPad certainly has been a blessing.

  10. Rev Richard Laeder Avatar
    Rev Richard Laeder

    Oh, good grief! How does any of this further the Good News of Jesus Christ? Let these words be true in whatever form is chosen to convey them: “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:13–17, ESV)

  11. Don Neuendorf Avatar
    Don Neuendorf

    Of course, the only truly “authentic” worship is done from memory. Only aurality will faithfully reproduce what church enjoyed for thousands of years. And really, who could argue against memorizing Scripture, Catechism, and hymnal?

    1. Robert Appold Avatar
      Robert Appold

      Don, Just caught up on reading this article. I’m not sure I agree on your certainty that true worship is from memory. Question, why do you say “authentic” worship is aural? You must know of some study or something that I dont. Jesus used spirit and truth as descriptors of true worship . I agree that memorizing “from heart” is good, but your premise pushed to its logical conclusion would get rid of hymnals, catechisms and printed material.

      The article asks What does this mean? By using an iPad or any technology aren’t we trying to use technology that aids the goal to communicate & receive God’s Word and promise with thanksgiving? And if the aid becomes a distraction or ineffective it should be discarded.

      The technology is not the issue, but the way we use it that can be profitable or not. I see Josh LaFeve is the first on this list. Way to go Josh.

  12. Peter Schmidt Avatar
    Peter Schmidt

    From the point of view of one who is a bit visually impaired, the tablets have their place with the ability to make the font a bit larger, thus actually increasing eye contact with the worshipers. A Kindle Paperwhite works quite well in the bright sunlight when doing committals and one doesn’t have to worry about a breeze blowing the Agenda’s pages to a wrong location. Yet if what is being read from the electronic device is not delivered in a clear, meaningful tone the effectiveness of the words will be hindered not because of what is being held but because of the one holing it.

  13. Rev. Thomas Wm. Winter Avatar
    Rev. Thomas Wm. Winter

    I have seen such devices used as an aid for a pastor with macular degeneration. It permitted him to have larger print with a backlight, enabling him to serve the people. Great use of tech!

    As a rule, though, the technology can be often be distracting, and we ought not hurry to go out of our way to mimic the culture of this age. I know we are in a time of transition with many technologies, but we must take care that the Word of God is not perceived as ephemeral as a blog post or tweet.

    Where the technology helps with a medical situation, use it. But, personally, I have to be careful that I am not merely being eager to display my new tech. I have to agree with Dr Senkbeil, Rev Woodford & Rev McCain above.

  14. Philip Bohlken Avatar
    Philip Bohlken

    The last wedding I did was from a Kindle. Now I have an iPad, too. I am also retired. But, my big concern with a tablet is that I might accidentally touch something and the document scrolls or otherwise changes it’s place on the screen so that I have trouble finding my way back.

    An area pastor uses his iPad for the order of worship. Rather than restricting access by the congregation to what he sees, he uses the tablet to feed content through an interface to a large screen everyone can see, content that enhances his overall presentation and the involvement of the congregation in his presentation. I think that may put a dent in the scroll versus codex discussion.

    I remember an excellent sermon by a preacher who had an iMac in the pulpit complete with the glow of the Apple icon shining out under the brass pulpit light. I was able to dismiss it as the sign of a new age and listen to the sermon.

    Tablets are popular enough that even someone at a worship service may be tempted to purloin one left in the pulpit unattended. There is also the problem of a battery that could suddenly go down because the user made an unwarranted assumption. I would not want to depend on a tablet without a backup plan.

    I am reading Dairmaid MucCullough’s “The Reformation.” People resisted printed books in the church because traditionalists believed a hand-copied manuscript on parchment was the only real way to produce religious documents. People in the church even resisted making printed Bibles available to lay people because they might read the Bible rather than listen to the sermon. We adjusted to printed books and now know no other way (usually).

    We may have a few hiccups until we find our way, but I would not hinder the use of tablets so long as they are used well.

  15. Pr. Joe Fremer Avatar

    My problem with screens is “the message in the medium,” particularly that it is ephemeral. When the projector is turned off–or even when the page dissolves to the next page–the words and pictures dissipate like smoke. It is experienced as a fleeting, passing thing. When I use a book (and it would be the same with a scroll), I know, and the worshipers I lead also know, that the Word continues to have an objective existence, external to my train of thought, my stream of consciousness, and the experiences I will have in the next hour or day. At the end of that day, I can peek inside the covers, and God’s promises are still there! That meta-message, that the Word of God is a rock foundation, and not a sand sculpture, is one with which I am loathe to part.

    1. Pr. Andrew Walker Avatar
      Pr. Andrew Walker

      This seems to be an overstated point… What happens if those concrete pages fall apart with age? Or burn? Is the Word of our Lord flammable or subject to our temporal, physical laws? Of course not. There’s always a problem with the medium. If people need to see the words in front of them to know God’s Word exists and is steadfast, there seems to be a breakdown in their discipleship and their relationship with Christ.

    2. Dale Critchley Avatar

      In our sanctuary, if the power goes out, those dead tree hymnals are useless. We don’t have good outside lighting. But making the liturgy available as an online pdf would allow everyone with a mobile phone to bring it up, backlit, and it would feel like a candlelight service.

  16. Dale Critchley Avatar

    While it’s certainly a return to “scrolling,” I picture a hypertext liturgy as the next step after the codex, even easier to cross-reference with a click, or click-and hold, bring up a contextual menu, and search for that content, define a term, etc. Imagine our people being able to click on “salutary” and bring up a definition. We just need to learn how to do it well in a way that benefits while minimizing the distraction.

    Give the congregation the option of the service and sermon on their phones or tablets, and they can share their insights publicly while they listen. Battery issues for preachers aside, the biggest issue I see is the distraction of other apps’ notifications.

  17. Thom Lakso Avatar
    Thom Lakso

    On the way to Zion that sits on the top of hill that makes the Jerusalem walk a piece of cake. I saw a Mary very much with child woman walking up the left side of the road on the right berm her husband cruising slowly screaming at her out a roll down window. I stopped and asked if she needed assistance while praying that no shotgun would come out the window. She declined I drove on and have broken my vow of no cell phone, and I am in the process of owning my first cell phone.

    Wife attended a Maunday Thursday with our son where you picked up an individual glass and received wine from a common cup with a pour spout. Not for me but I assume the means of grace was given.

    My point is if use dead tree hymnals, bulletins or a tablet it doesn’t matter if you are faithful to the word, and its message of love and life in Christ is received.

  18. Tom Teske Avatar

    Great stuff, this modern technology! I love the way the seminary uses it beautifully and powerfully in the SMP program! I love it when folks (OK, usually younger folks) bring their Bibles to church on their smartphones or tablets. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to lead worship with my iPad, thinking it might be a distraction to some, but why not? Luther didn’t have microphones and PowerPoints, yet they are used to great advantage in our worship! The day will come (or may already be here) when people can respond to a sermon right from their seats in worship! I think that would be cool (as long as they don’t miss the offering)!

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