Thursday, July 2, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
‘Martians have just landed on the church roof’
Regular readers of this column know that I like to make fun of our fascination with all the new communications devices. It’s hilarious to me when somebody’s cell phone rings in a formal setting and you see some hapless lady go diving into her purse to silence the thing. I would never do what the preacher did down Waterford way. When a church member’s phone rang during the service, he asked to speak to the caller, and chastised the poor man for not being at worship! The congregation laughed about it for days.
In the wider media, it will not be long before we hear that some event of historic proportions has been verified “on the basis of multiple tweets.” Still, I do not depreciate all the “twitter.”
As events unfold in Iran we see how valuable cell phones and the Internet have been to mobilizing the protests. It reminds me of the role Radio Free Europe played in undermining the old Soviet Union. People get a taste of freedom and free speech, and they do not want to go back. Even though a good deal of the yearning is for American jeans and other materialistic accoutrements of our pop culture, the deeper appreciation for democratic values is plain to see.
Every new communications advance brings both an increase of information as well as the potential to interrupt. In the “good old days,” some complained that adding a telephone brought too much of the outside into the family circle. Teens wished to speak to their friends instead of conversing with mother and father and the grandfolks around the fireplace.
I remember how my father resented television’s influence on me when I would beg to have my supper on a TV tray instead of eating with the rest of the family at the dining table. That was when “I Love Lucy” came on Channel 3 at 6 p.m. These days there are certain people I would never call when “Wheel of Fortune” is on!
New methods of communication used to be accorded a certain degree of solemnity. When the Western Union boy delivered a telegram, it was sure to be news of great significance — usually bad. Long distance calls in my childhood were brief. They were also much more expensive, when you adjust for inflation. Most people’s telephones were on a shelf in the hallway, attached to the wall with a cord — nobody envisioned that you would sit (or lie) around for hours and “gab.” The entire family gathered around the radio when Mr. Roosevelt gave one of his “Fireside Chats.” Cars pulled over to the curb and rolled down their windows so that passersby could listen through the open windows. Radio’s influence was likened almost to the voice of God!
When my boyhood church instituted a Sunday broadcast of the morning service (alternating weeks with the Methodists), a special reverence pervaded the congregation on those “radio Sundays.” The fact was made obvious by the fact that a large microphone embossed with the call letters of the local radio station would be placed beside the pulpit on those days. That was it, by the way. That was all the technology. The signal went through the telephone wires to the radio station, and we children were carried into daydreams as we imagined who might be listening.
After the service we would run up to the pulpit, hoping the line might still be open, and offered our own silly versions of the sermon for the benefit of all the children out there in radio land.
I think all children in that era had similar ideas. A friend of mine in Covington, Tenn., recalls rushing with another little friend to the pulpit after the service, identifying himself by name, and announcing to the radio audience that Martians had just landed on the church roof. On that particular occasion the line was still open, so that when they arrived home, my friend’s family received a number of phone calls from amused friends and neighbors. At least it indicated that somebody had listened to the broadcast!
I do not know how much good those old-fashioned broadcasts did, although there was some. When my grandmother was unwell, she would tune in. My father, who would often use Sunday mornings to catch up with desk work at his store (it was absolutely the only quiet hour he had), would switch on the radio and listen. Sometimes he also tuned in to the service from his old church in Memphis — I think he liked the connection to his past, as the same much-loved minister from his boyhood still held forth.
Today most religious broadcasting shows little thought or imagination. Most of the music sounds to me like religious karaoke. The preachers, most of them, are grubbing for money. It is as if American religion has forgotten that there are magnificent things that need to be said, that only the church can say. The great challenge of our time, with so many options as to what can be seen, heard and thought about, is the selection and refinement of those many voices.
A sort of “holy discrimination” is needed, and because ours is a democracy, it is the individual, not the government who must be responsible to make such decisions. Those people in Iran remind us how crucial the slim thread of communications technology can be. Would that we would use our blessings wisely! It is worth our thinking about as we come to another Independence Day.
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