In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.
In psychology, there is something called the “uncanny valley.” Here is a chart:
At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”
Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.
Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:
But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood. All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.
This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.
Another big one is recorded music.
We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.
Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.
Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.
On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?
The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.
Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”
Uncanny chart: By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097