Friday, February 13, 2009

Print IT

And though the incident had taken place more than five hundred years before, to the Story of Everything it seemed like yesterday. Closing his eyes, he could still smell the ink lying in wait on rows and rows of metal type, could feel the paper gently blanket him, could hear the great screw twisting down, and then, after the compressing and the lifting (he nearly lost his breath), could see . . . himself, as though he were outside his body, looking down. (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 6)

How has information technology (IT) affected our sense of sacred stories? Here is last week's timeline:
3,500,000,000 years ago. IT in a living cell.
50-100,000 years ago. IT in language.
5,000 years ago. IT in writing.
2,000 years ago. IT in a "codex," a book.
Now we add:
560 years ago. ID in print.
184 years ago. ID in photography.
Print appears 560 years ago (earlier in China and Korea). Johannes Gutenberg puts moveable metallic type, made to look like handwriting, into a converted wine press and produces part of a Latin grammar and then a stunningly beautiful Bible (see it). Fifty years later, in 1500, Europe has 20 million books in 35 thousand editions. It helps that inexpensive paper, invented in China in the second century, has now replaced parchment. (Sheep welcome the development.)

The impact of printing is complex. A decade after Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (the year is 1517), 30 printers in 12 cities are publishing his sermons as fast as they can get their hands on them. The Bible is translated into vernaculars; it's now for everyone. More and more, sacred stories become the object of solitary reading and interpretation. Only the written word, not any community, is the source of Revelation. "Sola Scriptura" is the rock on which you stand to oppose a corrupt church.

Printing also leads to modern science. "The scientific revolution followed printing as a more refined way to deal with the exploding amount of information humans were generating," writes Kevin Kelly. "Libraries, catalogs, cross referencing, dictionaries, concordances and publishing of observations all blossomed." Now one can ask of Biblical stories, Are they "science"? Some say yes, some say no. Galileo is one of the latter. He ends up under house arrest, but it could have been worse.

184 years ago. The camera. ID in photographs (see the very first). A modern view of history emerges, emphasizing primary sources, eyewitness accounts, evidence, "objectivity." Leopold von Ranke says the historian is not "to judge the past, nor to instruct one's contemporaries with an eye to the future, but rather merely to show how it actually was." It's hard to believe that this is a new idea but consider: no one talked about "photographic" memory before the invention of the camera. This is "photographic" history.

Once you can imagine such a history, you can ask a new question, Are the Bible's sacred stories photographic? Again, some say yes and some say no. Thomas Jefferson literally slices up the four gospels and keeps only the verses he deems to come from the "historical" Jesus (see the result). In Europe, Enlightenment thinking and higher criticism do essentially the same thing.

What stories go through! In the West, sacred ones start out spoken; then they are written, codexed, printed, photographed, not to mention digitized and internet-ed. They started out as narrative, and then they become (in the eyes of many) creed, science, and history. Today, we wake up to them unaware of all that has happened. What do we do once we know the history?




Dan said...

The articles that you sent have returned to the theme of your prior mailing -- the challenge to us to discover an appropriate manner of interpreting stories received from ancient traditions.

John Kotre said...

I agree on the challenge part. Maybe the interpreting the stories is like interpreting memories from earlier in our lives. Will take a week off to think about that one.