Illiteracy and Superstition

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of people talk about books, specifically books in the Christian tradition.  Some people seem to want to imagine that the advent and popularity of digital media means something (bad) for Christianity as a religion intimately connected with books (or with The Book). It can not be denied that Christianity is historically tied to the development of the book: at a time when all “proper” literature was tied to scrolls, the Church opted to go for the easy-to-carry and low-brow codex.   One way to look at that is that there is something about books important to the Church.  Another way to look at it, however, is that the Church saw a useful technology and took it over.

I’d suggest that doing the same to digital media would be the best course of action: we did it to TV and Radio as well.

There is, however, rather a lot of ruminating about the changes in the message caused by changing the media, as if overnight we’ve all forgotten that Jesus is the Word of God, who communicates himself: it is us who sow, but it is God who reaps the harvest.  The Medium is NOT the message: Jesus is not confined to a book or scroll or screen.

But all of these discussions deny the very truth of our Faith: Jesus, for 2000 years, has depended not on written text, but on spoken words: person-to-person communication is the means by which the Gospel is spread. Only recently have persons claiming to follow Christ opted for absentee evangelism: the Bible left alone in the hotel room, the bumper sticker on the ass end of the car,  the humorous t-shirt spotted in the crowd, or the tract passed out to random strangers on the street as if by some magic incantation Jesus would appear in target’s heart, or if the faith was spread like some STD by random social contact.

We’ve begun using the internet like that as well and despite all urgings to the contrary (even by writers of blogs) we seem to want our websites to be silent landmines of evangelism.  Ask your priest, we say, as we provide a humble answer our humble selves.

When we know the faith is lived: the faith is communicated by hearing. 

For 2000 years, the reality of the Church has not been found in reading or writing, but in living in community.  While we have some amazing writers in the faith, the very well educated and verbose Fathers and Mothers of the Church are not the majority experience. Most clergy for most of the history of the Church have had enough education to manage the liturgies and feed their families.  The majority of parochial clergy dealt with laity who were not literate – and yet managed by God’s grace to live in holiness, raise children and die to the world.  Most Christians never wrote anything and only a terrible few could read. Icons, stained glass and frescos were the illustrated texts to which they had recourse. Most prayers were memorized, and the best use for a book of prayers was to keep it under the bed during child birth to protect the mother and child.

Nowadays when every Christian of any stripe writes a blog for a global audience, we forget that we (me) are presuming to take to ourselves (myself) the office entrusted to only a tiny handful of Christians in the past: the creation of written teaching texts.  And yet we do so as easily and fearlessly as if we were getting in our car to drive to Wal*Mart.

Lord have mercy on us all.

Author: Huw Raphael

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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