Jesus in a Box: The Danger in Music Videos

Mediated Communication

We are living in an electronically mediated age. Communication is no longer what it used to be. On the up side, we have faster and more convenient means of communication, mediated by cellphones, the internet and other forms of  communication media. On the other hand, the down-side of these technological innovations are much more difficult to discern. This is because majority of these negative effects tend to be subliminal and secondary in how they manifest themselves.

For instance, while the cell phone has made it easier and faster to reach people on the other side of the globe, it has consequently reduced the need for face-to-face communication. Of course the innovators perceived this problem and came up with video-call technology. It is now possible to have a face to face communication with a person thousands of miles away from you via services such as Skype. Problem solved. Or is it? It depends on what we think the problem is.

More than an Exchange of Words

There are certain aspects of human relationships that technology continues to fail miserably at mediating. For example, while it is now possible to have a face to face communication with a person who is miles away, it is no longer possible to have that conversation over a cup of coffee, or in the kitchen at home, preparing a meal together. The new mediated communication also means that one can be having a video-chat with one person while text-chatting with five other people on multiple internet browser tabs.

Furthermore, I no longer have to worry about perks such as keeping time in order to make it for an appointment. I don’t have to rush home in order to have a conversation with someone, I can simply chat with you while driving. Even sadder, it is no longer possible for me put my hand around your shoulder when you break down in a moment of personal weakness. The best I can do is to offer a lame “Oh, I am so sorry, it’s going to be all right” as I stare foolishly at the empty screen… since you have moved away from the web-cam view.

Christian Music Videos

I think the general direction of this post is now getting clearer. The down-sides of mediated communication are not as explicit as the upsides. But it does not therefore follow that such down sides are less significant. Not when the communication being mediated is that between a man and his maker. Not when we are talking about worshiping God through media. Over the years, I have witnessed Christian music videos (especially local ones) slowly evolve into a mixture of bright colors, split-second switches between scenes and a lot of choreographed dancing. I am well aware that there is a sensational element targeted at exciting our visual senses and tapping at the emotional aspect of human being. One cannot deny that this is also an effective promotional tool for the videos. I am well aware of the positive commercial implications of producing videos that look very much like those by secular artists but with the exclusion of a few scenes, dance-moves, and dress-codes that would be considered, well, un-Christlike?

But beyond this, are we in danger of forgetting the spiritual implications of the works of art that we so diligently strive to produce and dedicate to God? My particular concern with the evolution of Christian music videos currently splashing colors on our TV screens and serving as the much needed accompaniment of every hit audio-version, is two-fold. I have a concern for the person ministering through the video, and the person being ministered to by the video. I will begin with the minister.

Implications for Worship: The Minister

I miss the days of Don Moen and Ron Kenoly. I used to love their music videos predominantly because these minister used to actually worship and praise God, as the event was recorded. No one can deny that watching such videos of heartfelt expressions of worship would quickly move the viewer to experientially marvel at the God being praised. Such videos did not hog all the attention of the viewers. Oftentimes, the viewer would find himself not even watching the video, but being part of the congregation in the video. It was not uncommon to find someone being moved to stand in the middle of their living room, with hand up-raised and worshiping God.

More importantly, the minister was actually, practically and presently worshiping God in the video. He was not being interrupted by yells of “cut” from the producer. He wasn’t lip-syncing to the studio-version of the audio. He did not have to always stick to the script. He would sing and pray as the Spirit led him. As a matter of fact, every live performance was a unique experience. He wasn’t fixated on the camera. He wasn’t even aware of the position of the camera. His heart was fully fixated on God. I commend ministries such as Hillsong and a few modern bands for propagating this culture of worship in such a highly theatrical, mediated and camera-centered age. To such unique ministers, the worship session always surpasses the video shoot. In other words, that is exactly how they would worship, whether or not the cameras were trained on them.

Implications for Worship: The Congregation

When worship is reduced to a performance, the congregation (or the viewers) is inevitably reduced to a studio audience. I cannot remember the last time I was compelled to worship and praise God while watching a Daddy Owen or BMF video. I am aware that this could be a matter or personal taste, but I believe that the culture of mediated performance of worship in music videos has radically distorted how the viewer experiences the gift. When a video seems to focus predominantly on choreographed and rehearsed dance moves, it is easy to get distracted from the message in the lyrics. Furthermore, since the dances are very refined, professional and the scenes changing within seconds, it becomes ridiculous to try to keep up.

So, what do we end up doing? We sit down, relax and enjoy the show. Yes. Many modern music videos have indeed (albeit often done unconsciously) reduced the worship and praise of God into a show. An entertainment. When a singer speaks of his struggles and how God has helped him overcome them, I am not even given an opportunity to relate the message to my own life. This is because the message is already re-enacted out for me in the video. My imagination is reduced to the size and timeline of the events on my TV screen. When a song is speaking about the heavens declaring the glory of God, I don’t have a chance to look out of my window and marvel at the golden sunset. I already have 32 inch camera-shot HD view of the sky in the middle of my living room. And what effect does this have on me? It ends up detaching me further from the message in the video, not to mention the God in the message. I find myself falling in love with the video, let alone the song, or even the God in the song. It is even sadder to note that this degradation of worship into a performance has actually moved to our pulpits on Sunday mornings.

A Call for Discernment.

Please, do not misunderstand me. This is not a call to boycott music videos. Do not misconstrue this for a lack of appreciation of the God-given gifts employed in the production of these amazing videos. My only concern is that we are in great danger of being distracted from experiencing the amazing grace of God being sung about in these amazing videos. My worry is that we may be blindly indulging our minds and emotions in meaningless entertainment instead of exercising discernment in our eyes and ears. I am afraid that we are no longer being faithful stewards of the technology in our hands.

It is my prayer that we will learn to practice discernment in our use of mediated communication and other technology-aided aspects of worship. May we remember that God is not more glorified when we reduce our imagination to a four minute dramatization in a video-clip. He wants all of us to experience all of Him. He has given us our various gifts as a means to experiencing Him deeply and richly. May these means never become the obstacles to the end – which is Christ Himself.

In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium has become the message.” I hope and pray that we will always find a way of making sure that this message is the Gospel.

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In His service and for His glory,

Cornell.

2 Comments

  1. Thats true Cornell….i have been watching Don Moen and Ron Kenoly, Hillsong and Paul Wilbur ALL MY LIFE….the very same videos but every time i do, its a whole new worship experience and a closer call with God. We actually need to return to the basics, especially locally. Am blessed by this message. God Give more insight and understand on such issues that affect our contact with The Father. Peace unto you my fellowservant.
    yours in Christ,
    Bezalel.

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