For a variation on the common “kindle vs. book” debate, I’m turning my attention to church hymn singing. Some churches now use large screens rather than traditional hymn books – but is either better than the other?
I will admit to be a book lover; I don’t own a kindle. To me, reading hymns from a projection screen seemed to be only one step up from karaoke. However, having attended services at churches where screens are used, I can see that they do have a few advantages.
The main one is purely physical. Projection screen do not fall off the pews. Despite several hundred years of both hymn book and pew, the respective manufacturers have never come to a consensus over the sizes of the book and the bookshelf.
There may be a better quality (or at least volume) of singing if people are looking up at a screen rather than mumbling into their hymn books. I’m reminded of my late uncle’s epigram: “if you’re going to mumble, please leave now”. However, some people who don’t consider themselves to be good singers might like the excuse to be able to look down in to a hymn book to hide their inability.
But, it’s perfectly possible to both hold a hymn book and sing out. It just needs a bit of practice. One of my pet complaints about church music is that musical directors spend a lot of time training the choir, but no time at all in training the congregation. Although I disliked the weekly congregational practice we endured at school, I’m glad of it now. The words of the music teacher still come back to me: “make sense of the words”, “look ahead” and “build up to the high notes”.
With a screen, additional hymns can be easily added to the repertoire. If the hymn isn’t in the hymn book, the church has three options: don’t sing it (surely the best option in the case of “Shine, Jesus, Shine”); print the words on pieces of paper (which have an even greater propensity to fall from the pews than books have); buy new hymn books (an expensive option – and generally adds to the untidiness of the pews).
So, what do hymn books offer above screens?
First of all, you can hold it. There is something rather satisfying in holding an actual book rather than looking at a virtual image – whether this is a hymn book, a novel, or an Ikea catalogue.
Secondly, you can look ahead. You can see which hymns are coming up later in the service; you can see how many more verses are to go; you know when you are on the last verse; you can even contemplate the rhyming structure of the verses (or is that only me?). All easier to do when the entire hymn is laid out before you, rather than just a few words at a time.
Books are probably more user-friendly for people with visual impairments. They can be produced in different font sizes, held at different distances from the eyes, or used with a magnifying glass. None of this is easy with a screen.
And finally: books don’t fail. They don’t have computer glitches; the words don’t unexpectedly fade; they continue to work in power cuts. And they don’t rely on someone displaying the right lines at the right time – just on the reader being able to follow the word. Hmm, that isn’t entirely foolproof, is it?
But there is one area where screens win hand-down over books: they have other uses. For example, notices can be displayed, or the preacher can use them as a visual aid to illustrate the sermon.
Do books have an attribute that screens can’t match? Well, for me just being a book is enough. But remember – you can’t squash a fly with a projection screen.