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The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World: Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God

By Tex Sample

Abingdon. 1998. 141 pp. Pb. $18.
ISBN 0-687-08373-7

Reviewed by Stanley R. Hall


Tex Sample's volume on electronic culture and Christian worship is popular in the best sense: it is clear, concrete, accessible and not too long. Believe Leonard Sweet's book cover blurb: "It's the next best thing to Tex Sample live!"

With his own mix of socio-cultural criticism and well-honed illustration, Sample describes the electronic culture that has been taking shape since the Second World War and the cultural practices that influence the generations alive today. He steps up to the mark to sketch a transformed Christian worship that takes seriously, with neither undue anxiety, nor inappropriate trust, the sounds and rhythms and cultural skills of “Boomers, Xers and Millenials.” He argues that the church must appropriate ways of knowing, feeling and identifying meaning which are being shaped by the rapid and pervasive growth of electronic technologies, but in ways that are to be structured by Christian liturgy and remain true to “the Christian story.”

Electronic culture can be traced to all the sense-enhancing communication devices that have been shrinking the world in the last two centuries, but the exponential growth of a truly electronic culture began emerging after the convulsive middle of the 20th century. All of the generations who are alive today represent different cultures — oral, literate and electronic — in the ways by which people perceive and know and judge their experience of the world.

Sample deftly draws out the different ways persons in different age groups experience the world. Image, sound as beat and visualization have become basic to the ways that post-war generations perceive or construe their world. Sample argues that they are inherently neither good nor bad, but, more important, that they are distinctly different forms of engagement. Indeed, they are cultural characteristics, worthy of that formal respect we accord the ways of other cultures.

In this newly recognized world of an electronic culture, there are indigenous practices of particular interest for the church. The popular music of generations and ethnic groups constitute their “soul” music(s), the bearers of narratives of meaning and rhythms of identity. Embodied engagement of the world means dance is crucial. The fount and summit of electronic culture is in performance, and above all in events that Sample calls “spectacle.”

Think of a rock concert as the prototype of this sort of event in electronic culture. Light and sound, beat and image — and the enthusiastic, skilled participation of persons who become much more than simply audience, but rather “consumers” in the most profound sense — are all part of the construction of an experience that offers at different levels of intensity and conviction the sense of community, of meaning, identity and commitment.

The strength of the book is its brisk, genial and stimulating appreciation of the practice of electronic culture. A reader might miss the subtlety and depth of Sample’s reflection, or be misled by the folksy charm of his illustrations. But his is a dense argument that gathers a great deal from the social sciences and cultural criticism.

There is no simplistic answer or reactionary spasm in the argument, though there is a good deal of optimism about the church’s ability, as well as its obligation critically and skillfully, to embrace the culture in which it lives — and to recognize a sea change in the culture we thought we knew. And, as Sample explicitly says, it all has to cash out at the most critical interface of gospel and world, the public worship of the church.

Other apostolic functions of ecclesial life and witness must also be reconsidered as to their embodiment in electronic culture but worship is where it has to work. Does it?

Sample is not peddling liturgical snake oil. What he offers is a brave try, a shot at least at the correct target, which is worship with scriptural, liturgical and theological integrity. He claims to utilize the Common Lectionary and classic liturgical order, as well as admitting his Wesleyan piety.

My sense is that the result he delivers tends to rely overmuch on dramatic thematization, and that the biblical text fades away into media other than the human voice proclaiming God’s word in our midst. But I respect the attempt, as a challenge to better efforts.

Sample adds to the literature that is helping us understand the inculturated character of all Christian worship, as it is practiced in every historic context. This is a book to read (twice, if you are not familiar with Sample’s own rhetoric), not to find the liturgical answers, but to grasp the challenges facing liturgical renewal.