On The Wisdom Of Screens

roodscreenUntil very recently, if I mentioned screen and church in the same sentence one would have thought of a rood (Saxon for “cross”) screen, which separates the nave from the chancel. There, in the chancel, is the altar and the choir in the medieval church. Today, however, if we say screen and church in the same sentence we think immediately of a projection screen. There is a certain irony in the return of the screen to Reformed churches. One of the first things that the Reformers did was to remove screens because, in Christ’s church, properly ordered, there are no altars. The last altar was the cross on which Christ was crucified and on which he died. Thence we have no need of priests, because we have a high priest who has made the once-for-all offering. He is in the Holy of Holies and we have free access in him. We had no need of fences, gates, or screens.

The medium of the medieval church was the picture, on screens and on walls. The medium of the Reformation was the book. We replaced the image with the Word, violations of the 2nd commandment with divinely authorized representations—the preaching of the Word and the administration of two divinely authorized sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The return to the screen says something about the state of the church and the state of the Reformation today but more than that it says something about the future. In the early medieval period the church began elaborating on the sacraments. These were popular, pious practices that people found spiritually helpful. Over time, however, those popular practices, known as sacramentals, grew into sacraments. It took a long time but that’s how the 5 false Roman sacraments developed.

What seemed like harmless practices became serious corruptions of the theology, piety, and practice of the church. We should remember this pattern as we think about the re-introduction of screens to Reformed churches. At the moment they may be used to project the words of songs but the medium is the message. With the projection screen we’ve moved from the book to the screen. For what will the screen be used in 5 or 10 years? If images replaced the Word in the medieval church, why won’t they do so again? After all, it is not as if the organs that we removed from our churches in the 16th and 17th centuries haven’t returned, or as if hymnals haven’t replaced psalters, or as if images aren’t replacing the word in the culture generally.

Does this mean that a congregation that introduces a projection screen will necessarily depart from Reformed theology, piety, and practice? No, not necessarily but we do need to think about what sorts of doors we’re opening for the future. What sorts of songs typically get sung in congregations that use projection screens? Will the new medium lead to or away from Reformation? Before a congregation begins using a projection screen it’s worth thinking about our past and our future.

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  1. Excellent, Dr. Clark. A book which I found helpful on the subject of words vs. images is Jacques Ellul’s “The Humiliation of the Word.” Much food for thought here.

    • RubeRad,

      Agree about Ellul’s book. There are a couple books that knock you over enough that you vividly remember them and where you were when you read the book, and the impact it made on you; “The Humiliation of the Word” did that for me.

  2. Scott, funny – when I saw the title of your post in my email I thought it was going to be about the RCC rood screens…

    Projection screens – I would think in many cases where they are being used the door has already been swung open to hymns or renditions of psalms that are unvetted by the church (i.e. denomination). If it seems like a good song to sing it’s then so easy to include it, often at the discretion of only one person who leads worship-in-song. And bit by bit, the reformed nature of hymnody can morph into a mix of something quasi-Arminian, or a kind of individual experiential “touching of the Lord” in song (sort of a modern mystical sacrament), or a type of culturally comfortable religious entertainment.

    I guess you can surmise I’m not in favor of PS.

  3. New Life La Mesa has a screen, and they occasionally sing hymns “unvetted by the denomination” (In Christ Alone, How Deep the Father’s Love, …), but always just printed in the bulletin. The only thing I have ever seen the screen used for is showing a missionary slideshow during Sunday School.

  4. Is this a bit of an oversimplification? Isn’t a screen simply the projection of what’s in the bulletin, Prayer Book, psalter, etc.? Surely underlying theological problems are more the cause of abandoning the Gospel, rather than the technology used, I would think.

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