Who’s Watching the Watchmen?
This spring, the movie version of Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed 1986 graphic novel Watchmen was released. In the world of comic nerdom, there were outcries that the change of medium from comic to film was an unholy and sacreligious travesty.
The reason for the uproar was that the one of the most compelling parts of the Watchmen comic was its extremely complicated presenation and plot. It takes several reads to figure out what’s happening and to decipher how the comic’s structure relates to its message. In contrast, the recently released cinematic version is filled with 162 minutes of gory action and special effects, perfect for passively watching with a $10 tub of popcorn.
Comics Are Cool; Movies Are Hot
Though Watchmen junkies might be little extreme in their complaints, the difference between movies and comics is a classic illustration of what Marshall McLuhan called “hot”and “cool” mediums, a distinction which classifies how much participation is required from a person to engage the medium. A comic is “cool” because it requires a reader fill in the sounds, smells, and details of what happens between the panes. In contrast, a film is “hot” because it completely envelopes a moviegoer’s senses and requires almost no participation or thought to grasp what’s happening.
Similarly, a sketch is “cool” because the viewer needs to fill in the details, while a photograph is “hot” because it contains highly detailed information. An article in USA Today is “hot” because the information is predigested and requires little thought, while T.S. Elliot’s poem The Wasteland is “cool” because the reader has to work hard to fully understand it.
The importance of all of this is that McLuhan argued that people learned more in the long run from “cool” media since they have to do work and participate in contrast to “hot” media where viewers are largely passive.
Who’s Watching the Churchmen? Catholics, Evangelicals, and Video Clips
So what about Sunday morning? Should the things we do on Sunday morning – music, Communion, preaching – be “hot” like the Watchmen movie (highly defined, intense, requiring little participation) or “cool” like the Watchmen graphic novel (more muted, requiring the congregant to think and process)? Some of both? A continuum?
What helps people grow more deeply in their faith?
Consider the difference between telling a story and showing a video clip. A video clip leaves little to the imagination, while telling a story orally requires the listener to do the work of conjuring an image in her mind. McLuhan might argue that the story is “cool” because it requires more from the mind of the listener and that it therefore has more potential for learning. As a youth pastor, I always assumed a video would be more engaging (not to mention easier than telling a story well), but I never considered which might actually help my kids learn at a more deep level.
Consider also a Roman Catholic service versus an evangelical church. The Catholic church with its tradition formed over thousands of years is likely to function in a more “cool” way to many outsiders, so much so that it might be completely incomprehensible. Meanwhile, a seeker-sensitive church might be so “hot” that it is mostly a passive and non-engaging show.
So, this Sunday it might be worth watching how your church navigates the questions of how much work or engagement and congregant has to do. Are they sitting passively watching a show that requires little of them (i.e. is the service too “hot”)? Or is the service so hard to understand that they leave confused (i.e. is the service too “cool”)?
How does your church find a happy “medium” that deepens the faith of the body?