"Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely." 

That is Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale University, throwing a bit of social criticism at Microsoft's well-known software program by re-imagining Lord Acton's famous saying.


I just discovered Tufte - much later of course than his wife and no doubt thousands of other people - while preparing to teach Apple Valley's varsity teens a very short series of Sunday School classes on media ecology. We start this Sunday.  

Tufte has done something most educators and pastors of the modern era have not done. He has rigorously questioned the value of PowerPoint as a medium of communication.

What greatly sparked his interest and drove him to write his highly regarded 2006 essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, was the in-flight destruction of the space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. You may recall that when theColumbia launched in January a piece of foam insulation broke off and punctured the shuttle's left wing. While the shuttle was safely in orbit engineers from NASA and Boeing debated how serious the hole was and what should be done, if anything. The primary medium used in these debates: PowerPoint presentations.

In the end the engineers and officials decided to proceed with the shuttle's planned return. Upon reentry the spacecraft disintegrated in fire. Subsequently Edward Tufte analyzed NASA's PowerPoint slides and demonstrated that PowerPoint as medium "didn’t allow engineers to write in scientific notation and replaced complex quantitative measurement with imprecise words like 'significant.'"

Later that year when the Columbia Accident Investigation Board published its report (August, 2003), they referenced Tufte's work and said "the endemic use of PowerPoint slides” was “an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.” Six years further on, Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, a fellow at National Defense University, would write in theArmed Forces Journal that PowerPoint was still having a "toxic effect" in the military as “senior decision-makers are making more decisions with less preparation and less time for thought.”

The Columbia disaster and Colonel Hammes' research exposes one of the troubling things about the use of PowerPoint and other media technologies in modern life - the presumption of selective science. Users presume that PowerPoint makes them better communicators because the bright animated slides capture attention, simplify and stimulate. However, there is a whole other side to the science, the side that shows how PowerPoint usage diminishes real knowledge and sabotages wisdom.

Should not PowerPoint users, especially those who bring PowerPoint into the worship of God, perform the due diligence needed to understand how a congregation raised on PowerPoint in worship comes to think about God and/or not to think about Him? How will a congregation raised on song slides and sermon slides come to think about worship and sermons?

In a superb Wheaton College chapel message Dr. Read Stuchardt raised the question about using screens in worship: Do these screens "...help us to hear God? Listening requires the practice of listening, just as music requires the practice of music. Video screens may condition us to be willing to listen only if we can tolerate looking. Which is an effect that has already completely transformed the music industry and which is why all your pop stars are so hot and can not sing very well. Whereas the old pop stars weren't very good looking but could sing beautifully" (see Stuchardt's whole 30-minute talk here).

Stuchardt's point is that PowerPoint projected slides in worship are more about looking than listening. Even though the slide has words on it, the slide is just another image among thousands of others to be consumed that week. It is consumed and forgotten for it required a minimal effort.

Debra Dean Murphy in her essay, PowerPointless, says: "To use PowerPoint in worship is to unwittingly set up a competition between what is projected on the screen and the human voice doing the preaching, praying or singing. And it's a contest that PowerPoint always wins because, as Richard Lischer has obeserved, when the brain is asked to listen and watch at the same time, it always quits listening. What PowerPoint enthusiasts see as enhancing the worship experience is instead a form of sensory overload that manipulates emotions and stifles imaginations."

There are so many serious questions to raise about PowerPoint as a tool in worship. Does the man in the pulpit feel pressure to be as cool and effervescent as the song slide? Does the inability of the worshiper to go back and look again at the phrasing of a previous line in a hymn/song greatly delay their understanding? Do worshipers lose something significant  - the sense of having been entrusted with something - by not having hymnbooks and psalters in their hands? Does bringing a screen into the worship service unwittingly also bring the triviality of all that screen-life which exists outside of the worship service? In other words, where has a screen ever effectively mediated "reverence and awe" (Hebrews 12:28)?

You are beginning to understand what we will be doing in the next Sunday School unit for teens. We will talk about PowerPoint for sure but much more. I will introduce the teens to some of the thinkers, scholars and scientists who do a fine job questioning media before they consume it. We will talk especially about media and humanness,media and worship, media and love, media and attention span, media and self-control and finally,media and loneliness.

In many ways this class will ask our students to live a more difficult life. It will ask them to be very discriminating consumers of media. This is difficult because, well, it is not much fun. It is like talking about how the roller coaster was constructed and how often it is inspected instead of how fast it goes. So our students will be asked to live a difficult life. I know I can not force them do so - I know this as a biblical theologian and as a father - but I do want them to remember that while they were at Apple Valley Presbyterian they were asked to do so. May such a memory serve them well when they too, as Christian pilgrims, have to make sober-minded progress through the city of Vanity Fair.