Overcoming the wrong side of mediated authenticity

Marko Joensuu         No comments

We often bemoan the corrupting influence of contemporary culture on the Church. But many of these concerns are superficial and not related to how the surrounding culture really affects us on a deeper level. For if the medium is the message, then our central message seems to be that the most important thing is a great stage performance. And this centrality of the stage performance is the logical outcome from the architecture of most modern church buildings.

If you compare the church buildings built until the late 19th century with the churches built today, you will see a remarkable difference. In the old churches, the pulpit was elevated high above the pews for largely acoustic purposes. The priest spoke to us from above, which emphasized the supremacy of the Word. Unfortunately, this also made the distinction between the priest and the congregation evident. 



Today’s pulpits are mostly on stages in auditoriums with effective sound systems and visual extravaganza. Our open stages can give an appearance of informality and intimacy, but their intimacy is often illusory and carefully managed—much like in TV talk shows where the host and the guest embrace each other like old friends—even when they are really meeting for the first time.

Media theorists describe mediated intimacy as distant, non-reciprocal intimacy. It is projected intimacy, and today it is an integral part of the Western culture. For example, a politician who is unable to project this kind of intimacy will probably not be elected. Unfortunately, mediated intimacy is not real but illusory. It makes us feel that we have a genuine relationship with someone on stage, but in reality, that relationship remains one-sided.  No human being can have a meaningful, intimate relationship with thousands of people. 

Megachurch model dominates even smaller churches

In 1923, Aimee McPherson opened the first megachurch modeled after a theater in Los Angeles.  Thousands of megachurches and countless of smaller churches have since copied the most basic ingredient of its architecture—the division between a stage for performers and seats for an audience. Aimee built a theater, so now we have thousands of churches built like theaters. And in theaters all that matters is maintaining an illusion. 

Reporter Don Ryan wrote in Los Angeles Recordof January 2, 1923 about the opening of Angelus Temple, 

“If Aimee Semple McPherson had not chosen to be a revivalist, she would have been a queen of musical comedy. She has a magnetism such as few women since Cleopatra have possessed . . . Standing beneath the dome the revivalist explained her inspiration for the temple. ‘I wanted it like God’s own outdoors,’ she said. ‘So the gypsies and people of that sort would feel more at home. The churches seem to have lost the intimacy we get in theatres. I tried to get that intimacy here . . . The cheerful intimacy of the theater had been achieved. The building is much like a theater. It has numerous foyers. The seats are opera chairs. The only churchly touch is in the windows.’” 

In an interview in 1978, Aimee’s daughter Roberta said, “All she had was drama lessons in High School. So she read the Bible as an actress. She put back the drama that was already there.”

Aimee was very aware of entertainment as her main competition, and she taught young preachers, 

“Remember you have competition. There are the movies and the boxing-galleries and the bowling allies. Students, beat the old devil at his game and come prayed through, with the power of God upon you and every means you can at your disposal to get the message over.” 

This change would probably have happened even without Aimee, but it seems no coincidence that the megachurch was birthed near Hollywood.

We can perceive megachurches as the only churches with stage production problems, but, in fact, the prevailing stage performance culture affects all churches: large and small, contemporary and traditional. The main differences are the differences of scale between a Broadway, regional or village theater experience.

Uri Geller, an Israeli illusionist, once said, “In entertainment, there is a kind of acceptability to deceive. It is like there are two Picasso paintings on the wall. One of them is real. One of them is fake. But it doesn’t really matter. There is no harm in that.” 

The stage knows no difference between a hypocrite and an authentic Christian leader. 

Perceived intimacy is deceitful

"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. It means that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.  For example, TV is primarily the medium of entertainment, and this will affect everything we see on TV, including the news.

Nearly everything we see on TV is carefully stage-managed. And we have expanded this careful stage management to our church services. Whereas in the traditional churches this rigorous stage management has been used to create liturgies that create a separation between the clergy and the congregation members, in contemporary churches it is often used to create an illusion of intimacy. 

Some churches have a rock band, others a medieval choir. But in both, the Church mostly operates like a stage production.

Hyperreal religious experiences

According to media theorists, we live in a media-saturated world where media profoundly shapes the way we perceive reality. This complex intertwining of an event and its mediated representation is called ‘hyperreality’. Unfortunately, many Christians might confuse their experience of religious hyperreality with a genuine spiritual life.

We experience a transition from hyperreality into reality when we walk out of a dark cinema into bright daylight. We have been immersed in a manufactured emotional experience. As the emotional effects of that particular movie are not real but manufactured, they fade quickly, leaving behind a sense of emptiness. We can also experience a transition from hyperreality into reality on Monday morning when the great church experience we had on Sunday night has faded, and we feel we have no faith left.  

Stage performers as church leaders

Our church setup favors good performers. That’s because the stage belongs to them. No one wants to watch a bad actor. In this environment good performance skills are more important than a good character. We might bemoan the celebrity culture, but the reality is that even our building architecture is designed to manufacture it.

On stage, what matters is perceivedauthenticity. Fake or real, it doesn't really matter! Hyperreality doesn't differentiate between them. Our stage performance culture is one of the main reasons for the inability of our churches to make a difference in society—or even in the lives of our congregation members. Whilst we protest loudly against our secular society from the pulpit, we perpetuate its operating logic in our services.

When a stage performer becomes a church leader, his team will consist of stagehands that can help him look good on stage and supporting performers who will participate in his performance.  The stark reality is that most of our churches are run according to the logic of a stage and event management company. We have been caught in the wrong side of mediated authenticity. 

How can we escape all this?

I have heard many Christians say that we should escape all this and no more meet in church buildings. But small groups and emerging church models have their own problems.

And large churches and Christian media can have an important role to play in evangelism and society that simply cannot be delivered by home churches. For example, in the last year, our work with converts from Islam has been expanding to over ten countries in Europe and the Middle East. A large part of this work in the Middle East is happening through house churches, but these house churches wouldn’t even exist without the help of the Christian media and larger Western churches that have access to financial resources and people power.

It is helpful to see that the problem of mediated authenticity is by no means a new problem; it is an ancient problem that has only become bigger.

In Matthew 6:5, Jesus confronted this performance culture head-on when he admonished the hypocrites who liked to pray in street corners. Today, the street corners might have become church stages, but the temptation remains the same. Our problem is that stages have been designed for hypocrisy, as they are places for performance and acting. 

The only way to deal with the dark side of mediated authenticity is to let the Word of God inspect our lives on a daily basis. We must relearn to read the Bible for ourselves first rather than only for a sermon.

James 1:23-25 says: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.”

The solution James offers might sound simple, but it works.  It is remarkable how much in our lives depends on us remembering that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. 
Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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