Saint Francis was a bit of a multi-media genius, and you’re reminded of it this time of year.
We don’t tend to think of medieval folks as being multi-media folks because they didn’t have the same “fancy-dancey” technology that we have today. Lack of electricity did not hold them back. Consider Heinrich Schutz’s piece “Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?”. This piece takes Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus and translates it into music sung by four choirs that surround the congregation. To have four different soloists sing, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” from all around you in a dim medieval church must have been an incredible experience.
What did Saint Francis do? He popularized the crèche – the physical Nativity scene that has become a standard piece of decoration the world over as Christmas approaches. The development of the crèche did something subtle to the viewer.
The average person of Francis’ time probably understood little of the Church Latin spoken or sung by the priests. Many churches addressed this challenge with the story-filled stained-glass window. Looking to the light, the non-Latin speaker could be inspired by pictures that represented whole stories.
Saint Francis took that concept and went further. With a crèche in a city square or near the entrance of a church, the best view available came to those who came close to the little statues. And now the viewer was also in the manger with the shepherds and the cows and with the Christ Child. Along with seeing came presence and participation.
Saint Francis wanted to change how people saw and experienced the coming of God in human form, and through a fairly simple stratagem, he affected a change in people’s experience of Christmas.
This leads me to reiterate one of my favorite sayings, “How you see something affects how you see something.” That circular aphorism simply suggests that the facts of how you see a thing will affect how that thing is registered in your experience bank. For example, going to a Rolling Stones concert and seeing Mick dance around the stage on the Jumbotron from the cheap seats is very different than being so close that Jagger-sweat is flung on your head. The two-inch tall version of Mick Jagger from the nose-bleed section differs greatly from the up-close version of the expensive tickets.
And, as we know, we have to be taught to see what we see.
We have reports from the early days of cinema that a short black and white film of a train coming down the track toward the camera sent people scrambling out of the way of approaching doom.
For us today, that moving image would pose no problem, and would probably look a little archaic. With the development of modern CGI techniques, our eyes continually get trained to see each new iteration of reality as being closer to our real world experience. And older versions look as dated as the grunge style of the 1990s. Old. Out-of-date.
The funny thing is how modern techniques have been utilized primarily for entertainment, but not much else. So far.
I’ve been in the higher education game off and on for a number of years. Education folks keep talking about using modern technology, but they never quite get there.
In the early 1990s I was in grad school at a major university. They had transformed their undergraduate education and included a course required of every person getting an undergraduate degree. And it included video. Great, I thought. You send your Revolutionary War expert to Valley Forge with a video crew. The expert walks the fields and talks about the desperate conditions of the men stationed there. The students get to see and understand more about the spirit of the American Revolution.
No such luck. The videos were simply “talking heads” filmed giving lectures.
Some folks in education get overly excited about a new thing and look to it to be the entrée into a “new era.” For example, when The Matrix first came out, I knew a number of academic types who took the film’s layered view of reality as something exciting. Papers were given.
The presence of the Internet involved academics the same way. “We’ll teach in chat rooms!” The now ubiquitous PowerPoint made audio-visual aids more exciting! Why? The images were projected from a computer!
Universities gave the students e-mail accounts. An email supplanted the office visit or the phone message. Now the average college student doesn’t want to check email. They’d rather text. And so on.
At each stage of development there’s a group of academics who metaphorically squeal with delight. The new thing will be the answer to whatever problems we have. We’ve found the way out, and technology will give us the tools. Squeeeee!!!
Yet, all these years later on-line education hasn’t changed much. It’s not far different than paying to watch someone’s PowerPoint and more talking heads. The talking heads can be in high definition, but it’s still more jaw-jaw.
The thing we keep missing is Saint Francis’s simple insight. As humans we want to be part of the action. Oh, sure, there are some things we don’t want to experience at all. But when it comes to the things we want in our lives, we want the experience. We want to be part of it.
Ultimately, we’re human beings. We want to experience the humanness of our lives. That’s why entertainment has so easily picked up every new technique of bringing the viewer into the action. It’s our business.
Eventually some bright person in education will figure this out. But until then we’ll struggle along with our slideshows and talking heads.
And in the background will be a tiny voice saying, “Put me in the action. Put me in the action, now!”
To you who read this, may you have a very human mid-winter celebration appropriate to your faith, and likewise for the people with no faith. Be safe entering the new year, and may you have many reasons for expressions of thanks and gratitude in your life.