The screen, the page, and the Book

I found Sven Birkets’s essay on Resisting the Kindle in The Atlantic (2 Mar 2009) a useful reflection on page-to-screen transfer. I, too, am uneasy. But as I read the essay, it struck me that many of the things he says have implications for Christian worship as well.

He makes a compelling point about the the loss of context by using such technology. And when we take context down to the immediate context of any part of a work the loss of context become much more apparent.

Birkets’s story about the Blackberry search for a line of poetry reminded me of a similar circumstance several years ago. I was walking with a group of friends after evening worship when someone mentioned a verse of Scripture, but couldn’t remember the exact wording or reference. One of the group immediately whipped out an electronic Bible he had just bought, and tried to find the verse. Much to his annoyance, I was able to turn it up in a pocket Bible well before he could locate it.

My friend was simply locating information in an amorphous mass, however sacred. As I recall, I had a rough location in terms of the book concerned through knowledge of the text, and a memory of a position on the page. These two pieces of immediate contextual information enabled rapid discovery. There is no such thing as position on the page with electronic text. Even a large monitor still leaves a tiny window on the text (I find 24 inches still not enough). But a physical book enables much more of the immediate context of a work to be visible.

That’s why I’m not entirely convinced about projecting the words of hymns for church services. Each verse becomes disconnected with those preceding and following. Singing from a book gives the overall context of the stanza in the hymn, and enables the worshipper to interact with the hymn as a whole, rather than verse by verse or line by line, however the hymn is projected. Not even a Kindle hymn book would convert me. I have the same concerns about both ways of displaying text, when access trumps content.

Kindle may not be the Devil’s calling card, but we ought not to embrace it unthinkingly with evangelical zeal. All technology has implications and consequences. All things may be lawful, but not all things are helpful. Projecting a song’s words for a karaoke session is probably useful, though I have no experience of it. But Christian worship is not like karaoke, and projection of hymn words can make it seem little more. It takes more than a reminder of the words to make for effective worship.

Birkets also talks about the loss of historical reality to the author that is likely to take place if we become Kindlized (well, a horrible condition deserves a horrible word to describe it). Christian worship is grounded in the historical reality of God’s salvation. Dare we use means that erode historical connections?

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