Dreaming of New Forms and Utterances: Seeds

by Richard F. Ward

At the time this was written, Richard F. Ward, Ph. D., was Clement-Muehl Associate Professor of Communication Arts, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT 06511.

This article first appeared in Reformed Liturgy and Music 30:2 (1996)


For many, ritual represents the very thing we are trying to escape, that is, boring repetition which leads to a lifeless expression of faith. The purpose of this essay is to juxtapose ritual and boredom within the culture shaped by telecommunications, and to formulate a response.

Dreaming of New Forms and Utterances: Seeds for Ritual Reformation in a TV Culture


It is Monday evening and the chairperson of the worship committee is driving to a meeting of that committee at her church. Let's call her Edith. Edith is feeling anxious about it because she anticipates a conflict between the new pastor and one of the members of the committee over worship formats and styles. The new pastor jokes that she goes "by the Book", stating in her initial interviews that she was a "biblical" preacher who was concerned about the congregation's lack of biblical knowledge. She also expressed her opinion that some of the newer "narrative" methods of preaching were too closely identified with the "entertainment" values of the dominant television culture. Edith also knows that the pastor is bringing a copy of the new denominational hymnal to the meeting because she believes that it "dresses up" the traditional forms of worship with new "inclusive" language and hymn selection.

On the other hand, Edith knows that one member of the committee is bringing magazines that advertise electronic products for "changing the way your church worships" through the use of video and light projectors, high-tech sound equipment, and even a glass pulpit! "Why can't we invest in this kind of thing?" he said to her on the phone, "We need to use this stuff to attract the members of the 'TV Generation'!" The chairperson anticipates an argument over which emphasis will dominate worship planning and performance: the church's adherence to the "book" for the sake of traditional theological values or acquisition of new technologies for meeting the tastes and expectations of an audience accustomed to television.

"Well", she thinks, "I asked for it!" Edith decided to accept this responsibility this year because she harbors her own concerns about her church's worship life and thinks this committee is a good place to ask: why does our worship seem to bore people? Some of her friends left to join a new "community" church which had simpler, more spontaneous styles of worship, enabled by sophisticated electronic equipment. Edith visited their worship service but came away feeling dazzled but not nurtured. She had not been able to distinguish between "worship" and the kind of formats she was used to seeing on television. She was also uneasy about this congregation's heavy emphasis on one's "personal" relationship to Jesus, on her secondary status as a woman, and narrow approach to social reform. Still, their style seemed to capture something she sought for her own church.

Ritual: Bane or Boon?

Let's break in to this scene for just a moment to make the first point of this article. The undercurrent beneath this lay woman's anxiety is something that perplexes many who read this: how does the church address the problem of "ritual boredom" which afflicts our culture? What is the role of telecommunications technology in this effort?

Ritual boredom is defined by Tom Driver as "a condition in which people have become fundamentally weary of the rituals available to them for giving their lives shape and meaning." And yet at the same time there is what Driver calls "ritual apprehension", a reluctance to claim "ritual" as a vital term in our vocabulary 1. For many, "ritual" represents the very thing we are trying to escape, that is, boring repetition which leads to a lifeless expression of faith. The purpose of this essay is to juxtapose "ritual boredom" within the culture shaped by telecommunications and formulate a response.

We could help people like Edith by releasing the word "ritual" from its negative connotations and clarifying some of its attributes. We do this to understand the impact that television is having upon our worship practices and take on the larger question of how we are to interpret our faith in our "electronic" cultural milieu. Ritual is best thought of by what it does rather than what it is. As human beings, we need rituals to mark time and space, to give order and pattern to communal life, and to teach us about our distinctiveness as a family, faith community, or culture. Rituals are forms of repetitive individual and collective behaviors that, over time, forge links between the "everyday" and the "extraordinary", therefore infusing human behavior with meaning. When the tension between the arcane and the sacred is too relaxed in ritual performances, the rituals themselves must be critiqued, modified or reinvented. For some, the edges of Christian liturgy are fraying and need the jolt of the new technologies to become enlivened. For others, the changes wrought by electronic media need to be resisted in order to deepen engagement with the faith tradition.

Such extremes are historically and theologically naive. Our liturgy is sacred ritual because it creates anticipation and receptivity to the Spirit of the Risen Christ in the experience of the participants. It uses "ordinary" materials such as fire, bread, wine, clothing, and books and proscribed words and gestures as its elements. We bring verbal forms, structures of meaning, objects and patterns of behavior, not to show God their elegant lines and shapes but to pray that God's Spirit will break them open and show us the backside of the Holy. Conceivably, "electronics" can be brought into worship along with any other ordinary object from our daily lives. The question is: can the object be "broken" open by God's spirit and disclose the Holy or does the object and its usage call attention to itself? Ritual performances that call attention to the objects themselves are in danger of losing their evocative power.

Print: A Stylistic Constraint on Ritual Speech

Speaking, of course, is an integral part of liturgical performance as is gesture and display. Its style ranges from the conversational to the formal utterance and even perhaps to the chant. Ways of speaking reflect the aesthetic and communicative values of both a particular congregation's culture and tradition; our language for worship is designed to link the vernacular with the formal.

The aesthetics, style and patterns of inflection that Anglo-Protestants use in liturgical speech are those of a "print" culture, that is, a culture whose primary form of communication is dependent on print. Speakers at the average Protestant worship service try to translate what is printed into sound with voices that are reasoned, deliberate, controlled, and detached. The great innovation of the printing press allowed everyone who could read to participate by providing book and page as a commonly held "script" for liturgical performances. One of the strengths we had as "reformers" was the imaginative incorporation of the technologies of print into our individual and communal ritual lives. The printed word became a pathway into our individual and corporate experiences of God. Telecommunications technology has released ways of speaking into our culture that are constrained by these same forms and structures shaped by print. Our ritual speech needs to reflect the animation, energy, and spontaniety that we have come to value, without an attitude of glibness and affect.

Television and Worship as Ritual Communication

What is conspicuously absent is imagination about how to escape our strict reliance on print and incorporation of television's communicative values into our ritual lives. Protestant theologians, deeply embedded in modes of learning shaped by print and silent, critical reading, are inclined to dismiss television as a serious force in culture because of an inadequate view of communication. Television has proven itself to be an agent of cultural transformation, not simply a tool for advertisers. Misunderstanding this has caused us to become blind to both the kinship and radical dissonance between two forms and fields of communicative activity--television and liturgical performance.

Television and the performance of a Christian liturgy are both forms of "ritual communication", that is, they are both complex processes of message-making that create, modify and transform a shared culture. "A ritual view of communication is not directed toward the extensions of messages in space, but the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information or influence, but the creation, representation, and celebration of shared beliefs". The metaphor of "ritual" in the study of human communication displaces the linear "transmission" or "transportation" view of communication that developed in print culture. According to this latter view, "communication (is a) process of transmitting messages at a distance for the purpose of control. . . communication then is persuasion, attitude change, behavior modification, socialization through the tranmission of information, influence, or conditioning".2

One of the consequences of the "transmissions" view for the church is that it easily equates communication with technology or techniques for improving the capacity of "senders" to get their messages across to passive recievers. The subject of communication was therefore isolated or ignored by theology since the means of sending messages were taken to be theologically "neutral". The work of the theologian (when the transmission model was dominant) was to insure that the doctrinal content of the message was sound (an interesting play on words) regardless of whether the message was formulated as a sermon preached in the pulpit or on the air. Communication to print-based people means effectively extracting and lifting ideological content off the printed page and transmitting it through whatever media is available.

This is where we Protestants have contributed to ritual boredom in our culture. We are still working at ways to enliven printed matter through our voices and gestures when the culture-at-large has developed new aesthetic standards shaped by the electronically mediated "word". Media shapes the way we hear, feel, and understand, indeed our very consciousness. A generation of audiences reared on television is used to animation, emotional appeal, kinesthetic participation, narrative and dramatic structure, and skillful use of an "audiovisual" language.

Television is pervasive in our society and demands our attention. (Even when I have the television on as "background noise" I find myself drawn to what is on). In many ways, we have become a "captive" audience. We live in one media world and worship in another. How do we live and worship in such a strange land? If we "sing the Lord's song", can it still be accompanied by organ or even guitar? Or will it need to have a studio-produced soundtrack behind it in order to be heard? If we are to alleviate ritual boredom we will need to take the audiovisual language our culture now speaks into account. We need not develop liturgical amnesia to do so but certainly will have to emphasize narrative and dramatic elements of the rituals we have or invent new ones. We must also learn how to "demythologize" television by understanding its "religious" functions.

Television: Joy or Concern?

Back to Edith because now she has stopped at a traffic light and drums her fingers on the steering wheel. She happens to look at the car in front of her. A bumper sticker on it shouts "Kill Your Television!" She laughs with recognition. She just received an invitation from the school her child attends to participate in the "Week Without TV" campaign. The program asks parents to consider the power that television has in shaping family life and to reinstitute elements of choice for a family's time together. It would be nice, she thought, to recover some of the things that television had seemed to take away. Why was life without television, even for a week, so hard to imagine? What is it about television that held them captive?

On the surface, television seems to be a highly developed mechanism for delivering particular audiences to advertisers. Peter Horsfield makes this point. "Television is primarily a commercial activity . . . television has developed around advertising, the primary purpose being to gather as large an audience as possible to 'sell' to the advertisers."3

In return, advertisers provide programs that allow the viewer to escape into vicarious experience but perhaps most importantly, to reassure them of some degree of order and stability in their lives. The news comes on at a set time each day and night and a favorite program airs during particular (usually reliable) time slots. A viewer's leisure time might be ordered around the television programming schedule.

These aspects point to what William Fore and Gregor Goethals call the "hidden" role of television which is "to tell what our world is like, how it works, and what it means". Television not only transmits an advertiser's message but it provides the myths by which we live, reveals to us where power lies, and what is of value to the culture and what is not.4 Gregor Goethals amplifies Fore's point. In a ritually impoverished society, television lends ritualisitic elements by broadcasting civic ceremonies, sports events, and even commercial advertisements.5 Such programming provides the images and iconography by which individuals become connected to the shared values of our consumer culture. Fore confirms what we might already have suspected at times:

[Television is beginning to replace the institution that historically has performed the functions we have understood as religious. Television, rather than the churches, is becoming the place where people find a worldview which reflects what to them is of ultimate value, and which justifies their behavior and way of life.6]

The light changes and Edith passes the "Kill Your Television" car. She imagines herself gleefully dispatching the television set, thereby releasing herself from its hold once and for all! Yet, she also wonders if the driver's spiritual ancestors might have resisted the changes the automobile brought to society or decried human forays into flight? The automobile and later the airplane effected her culture in revolutionary ways. Her worship tradition certainly did not collapse as a result of these changes, though the structures of her "church life" were modified. As much as she would like to sometimes, she cannot make television disappear by "killing" it. So how does one live with television and in the kind of cultural milieu it has created? How does one worship with the television set "on" in our culture and consciousness?

Reclaiming What Is Not Lost: Strategies for Living While Plugged In I had the privilege recently to hear the South African playwright Athol Fugard speak to a group of students. He talked about what it was like to write and produce plays under apartheid. Fugard's work was considered illegal because his themes challenged the policy. He and his small company of black and white actors would rehearse and perform his plays whenever and whereever they could, always aware they could be raided by South African police, arrested and perhaps tortured or executed.

Internalization of the words became their defense. In order to survive, they had to change the relationship between paper and their speech. Playwright and performer alike learned all the words of the text so that, if the police came looking for a playbook, there would not be one. Since there was no "book", there was no evidence the officers could use to convict them of illegal performance. After the raid, these artists could resume their rehearsal. All the words were inside each of them, helping them not only resist the ideology of apartheid, but lending to their performance the authority of lived experience. Everyone involved with the play carried Fugard's words with them wherever they went.

Our cultural situation is certainly not as severe as Fugard's but his performance strategy is instructive to us. The power of television is found in both what it is and what it does. It is part of a complex system of message-making that relies on color, movement and sound, a high degree of participation of a listener, and a nearly universal presence that captivates our attention. More importantly, it is the primary conveyor of a consumer culture whose values system is radically dissonant from biblical faith. Bill Fore has identified its elements:

1. The fittest survive

2. Power and decision making start at the center and move out

3. Happiness consists of limitless material acquisition

4. Progress is an inherent good.

5. There exists a free flow of information. 7

So how do we perform worship in an electronically mediated environment who style and values are different from those in our "Book"?

It's time for confession. We Protestant Christians have to admit that we have exhibited triumphalist tendencies in our thought about television and it has cost us. The brief history of our Church's attempt to understand, much less, translate the gospel of Jesus Christ into the vernacular of television is characterized by failure. Television has a way of getting the kind of religion it needs to perpetuate consumer culture. What prevails on television is a "gospel" that affirms free enterprise capitalism and its material rewards. "Discipleship" becomes adherence to personal moral and behavioral codes and monetary support of the broadcasting "ministry". Our experiments with the "electronic church" should teach us that no medium is theologically neutral and will shape messages according to its own needs. A strategy based in triumphalism, that is, an attempt to "take over" the means of production "in the name of Jesus" has only led to a deeper bondage to production-consumption.

Triumphalism also takes another, more subtle form. It suggests that our gospel is somehow "above" television fare. Television vernacular, (as insufferably offensive as it can be), is not suitable for proclamation and therefore we have nothing to learn from it. If television cannot really be "killed" as a cultural force, then perhaps it can be ignored. Both forms of triumphalist thinking have contributed to our failure to discern what the church's role in an electronic culture seems to be.

This reluctance to translate the Gospel into the vernacular of television is well-founded, to be sure. The essence of Christian communication is responsiveness to the Spirit of God and service to human beings in their various needs. Its communicative motifs are interaction and embodiment. Television only provides the illusion of interaction and embodiment by providing vicarious experience. I stand with those who believe that the effort to "televise" the Gospel of Jesus Christ is misguided. Television too skillfully overcomes the existential dimensions of the Gospel by reducing it to information and extracts what little entertainment value that it can for its market value. Perhaps in the future, as television itself evolves into the Internet, we may discover speech forms that fit this medium. But in the meantime, our energy is best spent elsewhere. We need to take responsibility for our ritual lives by reviving, reclaiming, and restoring our ritual forms and if they are irrecoverable, create new ones. Television at present does not belong to us but to those mercantile interests that become increasingly hostile or indifferent to Christian faith.

Therefore, we need to learn to think as people "in exile".

The biblical story in its entirety is a juxtaposition of opposites: Captivity with Exodus, Crucifixion with Easter, Alpha with Omega. Triumphalism is juxtaposed with Exile. As Donald Rogers has suggested, we, as people of faith, "without having traveled, are now living as did the people of the Exile".8 Exile? Us? Why not us? Telecommunications technology developed so rapidly that it overwhelmed the critical skills we honed in our study of traditional, literary texts and left us bewildered, weak, and feeling powerless. Our failure to "read" television is why some of us are now called "oldline" instead of "mainline" and others of us find our faith virtually indistinguishable from consumer culture. Richard Goodwin, the lawyer played by Rob Morrow in the movie Quiz Show, speaks for many of us: "I thought we were gonna get television. The truth is television is gonna get us." The consciousness industry that owns television has "gotten us" by taking over the public spaces where the spoken word once flourished. Town greens, public squares, forums, amphitheatres, and churches have been displaced by cybercafes and cathode tubes. It is the place where public symbols and shared mythologies are broadcast, "heightening consumerism as our only shared value"10.

However, people in exile are not without spiritual resources. Like Fugard's troupe, we can benefit from internalizing more of our traditional material and weaning ourselves from the printed page. We can learn skills that will enable us to memorize and recite biblical stories in corporate worship and other gatherings, or at least read them aloud as stories, letters, poems, and other expressions of oral art. We can recover other oral traditions that have been all but lost in print culture.

While worshipping with some Appalachian Christians recently, I rediscovered the power of lining out hymns instead of singing from hymnbooks. The same idea can be incorporated in liturgical performance. A leader can teach a congregation a simple spoken response just as easily as "script" it on a page. While we may not be able to extricate ourselves from either our consumer culture or our heritage in print, at least we can begin to liberate ourselves from our reliance on books and paper in our worship by recovering skills of memorization, recitation, and narration. We can certainly begin to rethink our relationships to space and to paper. Paper should serve speech rather than speech serving paper. Spaces in our homes and sanctuaries can be reclaimed for new rituals, storytelling, and sharing.

These are only some initial impulses and inclinations, of course, and will not bring down the mighty consciousness industry represented by television; but they might help us formulate strategies for transmitting our tradition of faith to our children. Another spiritual resource is our collective memory of living through previous media revolutions. Exiles develop an acute historical sensibility. At first, the fledgling Christian church had to decide whether to translate their stories into writing for the purpose of preserving them for future generations of Christians. Later, as Christians became more powerful in the culture, they had to decide whether to translate the "holy" language of the Church into the vernacular, using the new technology of the printing press. In each era, the church engaged in a painful process of examining the relationship of the Gospel Jesus had entrusted to them with the culture in which it found itself embedded and the media forms that dominated. Mistakes were made but so were breakthroughs. Some institutions and means of proclamation and instruction dissolved and others were created. Our experience of finding "new wineskins" during times of media revolutions gives us reason to hope that we will develop liturgies which incorporate orality, print, and electronic media. According to Quentin Schultz, some church leaders are already doing this by introducing into worship the basic principles of narrative and drama: character, conflict, plot and setting 11. Preachers have been exploring these concepts and techniques in crafting sermons. Perhaps now worship leaders need to think with them about liturgical structures in the same way.

 Dreaming the Dream of Ritual Reformation

This is what Edith is daydreaming about as she arrives at church for the meeting. She has caught a glimpse of new possibilities for worship in her community. What if the Book and the new electronic technologies were somehow to collide and break each other open? What if the verbal icons of tradition and the images of the electronic culture were to dance together instead of fight one another? Would that not revitalize ritual life? Less paper, more spontaniety. More sacrament, less talk. More story and drama, less information. Aggravate the tension between the dominant culture that threatens to captive, and the biblical promise of freedom in Christ. Demythologize the captor's slickly produced story and learn to retell biblical ones as rank amateurs.

A seed of faith has just been sown in Edith's daydream. She plans to share it with her friends at the meeting. Pray that her dream is God's and that it will become our own.




1. Tom Faw Driver, The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities, (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 7.

2. James Carey, "Communication and Culture," Communication Research (April 1975): 177.

3. Peter G. Horsfield, Religious Television: The American Experience (New York and London: Longman, 1984), 21.

4. William F. Fore, Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values, and Culture, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 21.

5. Gregor T. Goethals, in Religion, Television and the Information Superhighway: A Search for a Middle Way, Robert Lewis Shayon and Nash Cox, compilers (Philadelphia: Waymark Press, 1994), 41-42.

6. Fore, 24.

7. Ibid., 64-66.

8. Donald B. Rogers, "Maintaining Faith Identity in a Television Culture: Strategies of Response for a People in Exile," in Changing Channels: The Church and the Television Revolution, ed. Tyron Inbody (Dayton, OH.: Whaleprints, 1990), 148.

9. Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 3.

10. Quentin J. Schultz, "The Place of Television in the Church's Communication," in Changing Channels: The Church and the Television Revolution, ed. Tyron Inbody (Dayton, OH.: Whaleprints, 1990), 31.