Essay

Knowing Buffalos

By December 5, 2014 No Comments
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In yesterday’s worship and liturgy class I showed students the “new thing” in worship—at least it’s new to me…I’m sure for everyone else it’s old news: environmental projection. No longer is there just a screen with images or words projected, now the entire sanctuary, or worship center—or whatever it’s called these days—is the screen. The clip showed a reading of Genesis 1. There were images of lights, plants, whales, and buffalo that provided a virtual reality as part of the worship experience. When the reading was finished the praise team moved right into singing – seamless worship. When the clip finished playing my students were impressed. They thought it was great, that it gave a deeper meaning to the reading of the text because it engaged the senses and emotions in a way they rarely experience in worship. 

I’ll admit – it was impressive. I can imagine how one can easily get “caught up” in a worship experience like this. Many of the students commented on how “just” reading the text doesn’t do it for them any more. They need something else… something more. This is where I went off… in a good way, I hope. I asked students, “But doesn’t this experience further alienate us from our material, our creaturely, existence?” Blank stares. So I wrote two words on the board: incarnation and Gnosticism. “Isn’t this a contemporary manifestation of Gnosticism? What Baudrillard calls “hyperreality”?” I went on to explain how it seems this virtual reality pulls us into an experience of the world that values some ideal, abstract, world that is disconnected from material existence. “But I know what a Buffalo is,” one student replied. “So when I see a picture of a buffalo… I know what it is.” This is where I asked, “Really? Do you “know” the buffalo? Have you ever seen one close up? Have you every stood next to one and realized that this beast might actually kill you?”

Off we went on a conversation about what it is to “know” something, the mysterious “otherness” of the created world, of other people, of the God we worship. I made the case that seeing a projection of the streets of Sioux City during a worship service isn’t the same as standing on a particular street corner at 3pm or 2am and truly experiencing the material conditions of the streets. It was a great discussion… passionate disagreement, signs of recognition and thinking… one student, who had disagreed with me for most of the class, finally said, “Oh… I think I see what you’re saying.” She went on to tell me about her experience of traveling to Ethiopia. “It was nothing like I thought it was going to be,” she said. “You mean it didn’t look for feel like the pictures or videos you’ve seen?” “Exactly.”

What’s my point? Not sure I have one. I left the students with this question: Shouldn’t Christian worship constantly bring us back to our material, creaturely, existence? Not constantly alienate us from it?   

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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