“We may be seeing the future of Christianity’s encounter with the book”

There’s a long but intriguing essay here by Professor Alan Jacobs that explores how the rapidly changing technology — from cell phones to iPads and Kindles — may have a profound impact on Christianity in the developing world.  He draws some interesting parallels between the small screen (cell phones) and the big screen you find in megachurches (and, increasingly, in Catholic parishes, too):

Google has been working hard in recent years to maximize its presence in Africa, sensing an already-enormous and rapidly-growing market for Internet access. Google thinks of African cell phones primarily as business devices, but, especially in eastern and southern Africa, the people likely to have cell phones and to seek Internet access are disproportionately likely to be Christians as well. And of those, many will use their phones to get access to the text of Scripture.

Curiously, what these tiny screens do to the Bible is almost identical to what the big screens do: reduce it to chunks of one or two verses. It is true that the cell phone reader looks down, and looks down upon his own screen, as opposed to the upward-turning congregant sharing one big screen with many others, but the same decontextualizing effect is at work. Biblical scholars have long complained about the imposition of chapter and verse divisions upon texts that originally contained neither — the verse divisions weren’t generally settled on until the sixteenth century — but surely today’s largest and smallest screens have achieved the ironic apotheosis of this textual partitioning. And given the aforementioned shift of Christianity’s demographic center southward, in the cell phone and the projector we may be seeing the future of Christianity’s encounter with the book. As Christians from the global South and East become increasingly interested in re-evangelizing the West, these are the technologies likeliest to accompany and assist their endeavors. And they will bring a theology shaped by the screens on which they have encountered the Word of God — and in some cases by the controllers of those screens: those who determine what is seen, and what remains invisible.

Read more. It’s fascinating stuff.

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15 responses to ““We may be seeing the future of Christianity’s encounter with the book””

  1. This is a phenomenon that reaches way past Sacred Scripture and into the heart of academia itself, into our libraries. Since the mid-1990’s most hospital and university libraries have discarded their old medical journals from the 1950’s, as well as the hardbound abstracts and abstracts indexes. When I was a graduate student, the online database, MedLine, only searched back as far as 1965.

    With 1965 being as far back as medline reached, the abstracts and indexes long gone, journals prior to the early 1950’s discarded without being scanned or photocopied, 1965 became year one of all knowledge for graduate students. The excuse given by several Ivy League schools was that they simply needed the space! Our universities are simply discarding the written record of science’s monumental discoveries. It’s happening across all the other disciplines as well.

    And we thought the burning of the Library at Alexandria was a big deal.

    What is happening in Africa makes sense on one level, as that continent’s termites have been a constant plague where libraries are concerned. In so many places it’s almost impossible to keep books.

    The answer to the problem is to move away from teaching so much of the Historical Critical method of exegesis in seminaries, which all too often uses a hermeneutic of doubt as its fountainhead, and to teach contextual criticism which forces the faithful to view a verse or passage against the entire contextual backdrop of the Bible and salvation history.

  2. Gerard:
    “. . .and to teach contextual criticism which forces the faithful to view a verse or passage against the entire contextual backdrop of the Bible and salvation history.”

    AMEN !! ALLELUIA !! AMEN !! I would add two additional points:
    –a movement away from a written textuality to an oral one — the original “word of God” one — can only enhance our understanding of how the kerygma is actually proclaimed in the first place!
    –a movement away of using twentieth century contextual explanations — or even sixteenth century contextual explanations — to the first century Christian experience.

  3. Amen Deacon Norb!

    I have a typo to correct:

    “have discarded their old medical journals from the 1950′s,”

    Should read:

    “have discarded their old medical journals from BEFORE the 1950′s,”

  4. I’m a bit of a Luddite where printed material is concerned. The Bible (or liturgy) on a screen, large or small, brings back memories of the bad old ’70’s and cheesy overhead projections of Mass readings, and hymns with a bouncing dot to follow along. One pastor took the missalettes out of the pews and said you could pick one up on the way in if you had a hearing loss, because the readings were supposed to be part of an oral/aural tradition. I always picked one up; I don’t have a hearing loss, but I process information visually, nothing sinks in unless I see it. Which is why I took copious notes in college, I would not remember anything unless I could read it. Different people processs the Word in different ways. I know that nowadays they are talking about Kindles and I-Boards, not overhead transparencies; but I think getting rid of print is a bad idea, unless you live where the termites eat books.

  5. For the information of both “melody” and “gerard.”

    In the late 1990’s, I did my doctoral dissertation on the whole issue of the fundamental orality of the New Testament translation I was working with — a series of Middle English manuscripts dating from 1360 – 1420 that were absolutely “pre-Wycliffite.”

    Bottom line; I added support to a revolutionary theory that an orally based Early Middle English translation of most of the New Testament did not come from heterodox Wycliffite sources but from Orthodox Roman sources.

    For “melody”: I can understand your dependence upon a written text. BUT your concern is one that only makes sense in the twenty-first century.

    –I’ve estimated that 25% of the American citizens alive immediately prior to World War I — just a century ago — were totally illiterate.

    –In Shakespeare’s time — the time of the King James Bible — less than 50% of the folks living in England were literate at any level.

    –Go back to the year 1000 AD and less than 5% of the men and 1% of the women were literate at any level.

    NOW, how could those folks who could not read even be “saved”? Well, you really do not need to be able to read in order to be saved! You need to have the kerygma PREACHED to you!

  6. Deacon Norb,

    Please forgive me if I’m not following you. Text history of the Sacred Scriptures has always intrigued me. Just a few questions:

    1. Do we have an unbroken chain of New and Old Testament texts dating back to Jerome and the Latin Vulgate? I’m imagining that we do, through the monasteries.

    2. In light of question one, whence cometh these orally based translations of the New Testament, and why were they there?

    3. While it is true that one needs the kerygma preached to them, there does need to be a systematic approach to the written text, preferably a contextual exegesis, no?

    4. How do we tie all of these together

  7. Please clarify what you mean by a “written textuality” and an “oral [textuality](sic),” particularly when one is dealing with a sacred scripture (i.e. written text) which is acknowledged to be the inerrant word of God.

  8. Gerard. The questions you ask would take a full semester to answer but let me at least highlight a few facts you need to consider:
    –The oldest extant manuscript of the Jewish Scriptures is a fragment of the Book of Exodus found at Qumran and dates to about 400 BC.
    –The oldest manuscript of an INTACT Book of the Jewish Scriptures is also from Qumran but dates to about 200BC — that is 1QIsa1 — Isaiah. That discovery shook up biblical publication and every printed edition of the Holy Bible published after 1951 contains that Qumran text — including the New American one that we American Roman Catholics use in our liturgies.
    –Prior to the findings at Qumran, the oldest manuscripts of the Jewish Scriptures surfaced in the late 1800’s (I think) and were found in a sealed storage room in the library of a synagogue in Alexandria. A few of the manuscripts of that find date back to 1000 AD
    –The oldest manuscripts of the Christian Scriptures are known as the “Great Uncial Codicies” and they were all hand-written from 325 – 400 AD in Kione Greek. Most were found in Eastern Church monastic settings and then were transferred to the Western Church. Codex Bezae did not surface in Europe until around 1500 AD and was the core manuscript text (“Textus Receptus”) of the earliest English Bibles. Codex Washingtoniensis (The Freer Manuscript now in the Freer Gallery in Washington DC) surfaced around 1900.
    –Jerome did not write his translation of the Kione Greek text into Vulgar “blue-collar” Latin until 400 AD. None of his original manuscripts are known to exist.

    The answer to your Question #1 is NO. We do not have an unbroken chain at all.

  9. Gerard: I have also found your e-mail address on your own BLOG. Be sure to look there for more.

  10. naturgesetz
    Premise #1: “In the beginning was the voice.”
    Premise #2: The stories of the Jewish Scriptures — at least from the Story of Abraham forward — date back to around 2000 BC. Those stories were created/ transmitted/ even translated in an exclusively oral environment.
    Premise #3: BECAUSE there was no written textuality of those stories until at the earliest the Court of Solomon in 950 BC — in fact, ancient Hebrew did not even have an alphabet until that time — 950 BC.
    Premise #4: The TaNaKh was not even edited into the format that we use today until the era of the Return of the Babylonian Exile and the Restoration of the Temple Cult in Jerusalem — around 450 BC.
    Premise #5: The events at Pentecost clearly is the first oral transmission of the message of salvation proclaimed by the followers of Jesus. That event happened somewhere in a window we now recognize as 28 – 34 AD.
    Premise #5: The very first ‘Book” of what we now know as the New Testament was the First Letter to the Thessalonians and scholars date it to 51 AD.
    Premise #6: The very first written text of a gospel was The Gospel of Mark — the oral textuality of the preaching of Saint Peter frozen into a written text by his “secretary” John Mark AFTER Peter was executed in the riots after the arson of Rome by Nero.

    ’nuff for now

  11. It’s sounding to me like there has been, in fact, a chain of written Scripture texts from very early times. It has been “broken” only in the sense that not all the manuscripts have survived the ravages of time, which is not surprising. We know that the Jewish tradition reveres the written scrolls and texts; even keeping them when they are damaged beyond using, and giving them a place of honor in their synagogues. The scriptures, both OT and NT, were committed to writting for a reason, as a means of preserving them. This didn’t happen immediately, and yes, the scriptures were oral in their beginning. But even so, people saw the importance of a written record in preserving them intact and as much as possible true to the roots. This doesn’t take away from the importance of the Word being preached, then or now; we need both the written (along with all the footnotes and scholarly exegesis) and oral.

  12. I am reminded also of Nehemiah 8 in which the written text of the Law of Moses was read by Ezra to the people; apparently it was a moment of rediscovery.

  13. You are absolutely correct here but what the text itself doesn’t say — but historical context can — is that Ezra, the priest-scribe, was speaking to the returnees from the Babylonian Exile. They had lived in exile for some 50+ years — over two generations.

    NOW: it takes two generations for any human family to make a language transition. (1) Grandparents (from the old country) know their home language but rarely learn enough of the newer tongue to speak it comfortably. (2) The second generation is bi-lingual/bi-cultural. (3) The third generation has completely transitioned to the newer language. I lived through that language shift myself and can see it on a daily basis here in my area of the Midwest if I look hard enough.

    Ezra, the priest-scribe, knew ancient Hebrew — which was by that time becoming a “dead” liturgical language much like Latin in our “pre-Vatican” Church. Only the priestly caste had any reason to know it.

    NOW, look at the historical context of the situation in Nehemiah Eight. His copy of the “Scroll of the Law” (Torah; the five books of Moses) would have been written in Ancient Hebrew — but no one in Ezra’s audience would have understood it even if it had been read aloud in that dead language. Ezra looked at the written text, spontaneously translated it into the common language spoken at that time — Babylonian Aramaic — and then proclaimed it aloud for all to hear.

    Nehemiah Eight says what happened next.

  14. Okay, but:

    we believe the oral material was eventually committed to writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit at a point where it was sufficiently developed to declare inerrantly those truths which God wished to reveal for the sake of our salvation.

    What I hope you don’t mean is that we can move away from sacred scripture because there was oral proclamation before the scriptures were written.

    But if what you mean is that preachers should be proclaiming the truth found in the scriptures, without burdening the hearers with a lot of unnecessary focus on the formation of scripture, fine.

    The thing is, I don’t think we should try to go back in praxis to the way things were before the scriptures written.

  15. Natur. . . .
    “we believe the oral material was eventually committed to writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit at a point where it was sufficiently developed to declare inerrantly those truths which God wished to reveal for the sake of our salvation”

    Not bad! Good start ! Especially when you say “sufficiently developed.” Now to answer the question that you did not ask; the New Testament was formulated and developed — tried and tested — based upon the living-eternal-oral-whirlwind of ritual and liturgy.

    –The texts that are now considered sacred are such because they passed the “ritual-liturgy” filter.

    –Those that are NOT considered sacred are such because they did not pass that muster. The “Lost Gospels” were never lost — they just did nor pass that critical test of usage in liturgy and ritual.

    Bottom line: Neither the Jewish scriptures nor the Christian Scriptures would ever have been considered Sacred nor “inspired” unless they had been regularly proclaimed during the “eternal-oral-whirlwind of ritual and liturgy. Modern biblical scholars call this “Communal Inspiration” to contrast it with “Stenographic/ Individual Inspiration.”

    The sacred stories and teachings became frozen — in the written textuality we now cherish — long after they were created orally. That also means that they were transmitted and translated orally as well from one generation to another.

    Back to my Premise #1 above “In the Begging was the Voice.”

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