Thursday, December 13, 2012

Huizenga: Microphones injure preaching

Leroy Huizenga believes the use of microphones in churches has led to a decline in the quality of homiletics.
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.
This is symptomatic of a larger trend. How many times have we heard it repeated that "we," that is, those of us blessed to be living in this age of so many advancements in the field of communication technology, have the greatest opportunity to "spread the Gospel" than any previous generation. Well, try telling that to the first generation of disciples--those whose story is chronicled in the Acts of the Apostles. In the span of less than forty years, they "spread the Gospel" from an upper room in Jerusalem, into the surrounding areas of Judea and Samaria, and ultimately to the remotest areas of the Roman Empire. They traveled on foot, on the backs of donkeys, occasionally by chariot and, when they were feeling particularly adventurous, in weather-beaten rust bucket ships. They had no radio, no television, no internet, and certainly no microphones.

"We" who have all those technological advantages, are often afraid even to speak the name of Jesus to our next door neighbor.