The Screen Revolution: Visual Learning, Literacy and Liturgy

COMMENTARY: As the screen culture increases, our method of assimilating and processing information is changing. But could there be a religious benefit, reminiscent of the Catholic Middle Ages?

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You may have noticed that the screen is ubiquitous. Everywhere you turn, people’s noses are stuck to a screen. We gaze at our tablets, smartphones, billboards, televisions and computers. Some restaurants allow you to order on a screen; books are read, accounts completed and correspondence is done with the screen. The screen is everywhere and will continue to be omnipresent in our lives.

Furthermore, as the screen culture increases, our method of assimilating and processing information is changing. Those of us who were born before the screen revolution learned through reading. Education was text-based. Teachers had a few visual aids — remember those film strips? Some of them even had a record that went with it! Our noses weren’t stuck on a screen: They were stuck in a book.

The present generation is not illiterate, but it is un-literate. They can read, but they often don’t.

The screen revolution has not only shifted text from the page to the screen, but an increasing amount of information is not communicated through text at all. Short videos, film, television shows, documentaries and feature films all communicate visually what was once communicated verbally. The impact of this on the learning process is only now being studied.

If learning is done visually, how is the mental process different than verbal learning? I suggest that visual learning is much more visceral. It operates at a gut level — and emotional level — much more than verbal learning. When we learn with words, there is a rational and intellectual step between the experience and the learning. The experience is filtered through the words, and the words interpret the experience. With visual learning, the experience and the emotion can be much more immediate.

How does this impact our use of words and written learning? In one sense, the visual and visceral learning can be more powerful, immediate and experiential. Ever since the invention of moveable type and universal education, the learning process has been wedded to words. The approach has been academic and scholarly.

Education was rooted in students sitting at desks, reading books and writing papers. With tablets, WiFi, Internet and e-books, learning is portable, visual and immediate. It is possible, therefore, that schools, colleges, libraries and universities as we know them will evolve, grow, change and maybe even disappear altogether, as new modes of learning grow up around the new technologies of learning.

What interests me is how the human experience of religion can also change. The Catholic faith was born in an age before books. In many ways, its greatest cultural accomplishments were in the Middle Ages, before people could read and books were plentiful. Without books and text, life was visual and real, and religion was visual and real. The stories of the faith were communicated in earthy passion and mystery plays. The cathedrals were not the bland and sedate buildings of pale stone we see today. The statues were painted, and the walls were decorated with vivid patterns. 

The faith came alive in the abundant and boisterous stained glass, the colorful shrines of saints, wall paintings, candle light, grandiose architecture, beautiful embroidery, ornate vestments, sacred vessels of silver and gold and unimaginable visual splendor. The liturgy, like life itself, was a sight to behold. Worshippers got caught up in the visual spectacle and were swept into the court of heaven to experience the bliss of faith and the awesome wonder of a God who was beautiful, good and true beyond all telling.

Could this vision of the past be a pointer to the future? For the last 500 years, our religion has become increasingly text-based, but we are moving into a new visual age, and it is the Catholic faith that has the history and tradition to take advantage of this change. Unfortunately, as usual, we are a few steps behind the Protestants. They have already adapted to the visual age. Their mega churches are crowded with big screens, sound systems and the visual spectacle of religion as entertainment. 

For once, however, we should resist the temptation to follow the example of our separated brothers and sisters. Instead, we should turn again to the visual riches of our Catholic past. Now is the time to be unashamedly visual in our liturgy. Beautiful churches that inspire worship and lift the hardest hearts to prayer should be built once again. 

We should glory in the visual riches of the Catholic liturgy. Icons should fill our churches; stained-glass windows should be installed. New artwork should be commissioned and old artwork salvaged and restored. When people enter a Catholic church, they should not come into a bare preaching hall with threadbare carpet and worn-out, padded pews. Instead, they should come into a building where the liturgy and the learning is visual, as it should be for a visual age. 

Then, as they leave their books and screens behind, they should learn again to worship not only with their heads, but with their hearts. They should learn to worship in the beauty of holiness, knowing that what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears are the very glimpses of glory and the echoes of eternity.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

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