Coming Attractions: Worship in 3-D

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

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Stereoscopy 3d Anachrome optical diopter glasses. Image by Luca Volpi. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.

Actually, not coming. It's already arrived in Grapevine, TX and will apparently be available in Coral Springs, FL in time for Christmas services there as well.

You can read more about it in today's Dallas Morning News.

When 3-D technology first appears for movies in the 1950s, it was what might have called sort of a carnival sideshow attraction. Film makers were banking that the novelty of seeing movies in 3-D (the "ooh, shiny!" effect) would draw larger audiences to their films more than making up for the additional costs in cameras and equipment to produce and process them. Most of the films were shot in black and white and made on an otherwise low budget, with minimal attention to acting, writing and plot and greater attention on the special effects, particularly effects that might surprise or scare an audience.

Not surprisingly, this initial 3-D craze ran into the law of diminishing returns in just a few years. Very few films were made using this technology again until a brief return in the 1980s (Jaws 3-D), a return which seemed more an act of nostalgia for the 1950s tradition than any sort of significant breakthrough.

But now, 3-D is back, and nearly everywhere. Avatar was not the first to link 3-D to a film worth seeing even without it, but its success has spawned what might be called the mainstreaming of 3-D film making in this decade. Now, at nearly every movieplex, one can expect to find at least one or two films available in both "regular" and 3-D format.

And 3-D technology appears to be on the verge of making its way into mainstream television programming in the near future as well.

It is also already available, without any special eyewear needed, in some hand held gaming and cell phone displays on test markets in Japan and China.

Indeed, 3-D now appears poised to become a standard for video displays for entertainment and marketing everywhere.

So why not for the church, and why not for worship?

After all, 3-D does bring in greater crowds to movies again, and it does create a more immersive movie experience. You can feel more like you are part of what's going on, especially in a film such as Avatar where the 3-D effects are used not so much for "thrills" (though they work there, too), but on an ongoing basis. Shouldn't worship for Christians be at least as immersive as the scenes of the Na'vi at worship in Avatar?

It's just there that the problem arises. It is what is on the screen, or if in 3-D, perceived by the brain also to be elsewhere, that is immersive. It's worship as an event done by others and modeled in our brains, but not fully in the rest of our bodies. It is virtual worship, if it is worship at all. It is, as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, "the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind" (Understanding Media, 1964). We think and even feel we're doing something, like worshiping, perhaps, when we see things like this. But in fact, those feelings are only neural signals that generate no actual action by the body. 3-D technology may present a compelling illusion, a simulacrum of worship, but not the thing itself.

Why? Because in an incarnational faith such as ours in which God becomes flesh and dwells among us, bodies matter.

And bodies at worship are called and enabled do more than watch and passively or virtually experience.

While our brains may not be able easily to tell the differences between virtual and actual experience the distinction between what we may see with our eyes or process in our visual cortices and what our bodies are actually doing at any given moment, we believe in a God who can, who searches "kidneys and hearts" (literally, Rev. 2:23), and who will return among us as Judge not simply of our thoughts, wishes, feelings or intentions but also our words and deeds. It matters what we do and don't actually do. "Not everyone saying to me, "Lord Lord" will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the ones doing the will of my father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

The pinnacle and standard of our worship as Christians is found in our prayers and actions around the Lord's table. In the words of the Great Thanksgiving from Word and Table I, "we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving in union with Christ's offering for us" (See The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 10). Or, more graphically, in the words of the older Methodist/Anglican communion ritual, "we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee" (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 29).

We offer, we present, and in the older ritual, we speak and we embody these words at this moment. They are not spoken for us by the presiding pastor alone, but by the entire congregation. At the moment we are either standing or kneeling (depending on whether we come in submission or come with thanksgiving on this particular occasion) while the presiding pastor stands with arms raised in the ancient Christian and Jewish posture of prayer (orans position).

We offer. We present. We pray. We register what the presiding pastor is doing with her or his body in our motor cortex, but our own motor cortices are engaged as well, along with the rest of our brains and bodies. What we say and what we do in the moment are one. This is truly immersive worship-- worship not just in 3-D on a screen, but in 4-D. For here we are not located solely in space, but across time and eternity, praying and singing and offering and presenting with "people on earth and all the company of heaven" (UMH, p. 9).

The technologies needed? A cup, a plate, a table. The monetary costs involved? The one-time costs of those items, which you might borrow, plus whatever it takes for the bread and wine, which may be donated. Low or no cost, and zero compatibility issues.

With the technological threshold and the monetary costs so low for 4-D worship, why settle for mere 3-D?

Perhaps because we know the real cost-- "our souls and bodies... a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice."

Perhaps, like the simulacrum of the steak dinner that entices Cypher to betray his friends freed from the Matrix, we find it easier to believe the enticing promise of the burglar's distraction that more technology at higher monetary cost translates into more people at worship, and more people at worship means a better church, whether they or we offer souls and bodies in worship to our Triune God and in actual discipleship to Jesus or not.