Friday, February 6, 2009

What's IT Got To Do With It?

There now passed through the Story's mind all the forms in which he had existed. His life in speech, his life in writing, his life in print, his life in cyberspace. None could compare with the time he had spent in silence (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 6).

I've been writing about sacred stories reclaiming the language of the night and becoming stories again. Just stories. It makes me wonder how they got to be "creed" in the first place. What did information technology (IT) have to do with it?

Here's a timeline:

3,500,000,000 years ago. A bit of enclosed matter--call it a cell--remembers how it was created and makes a copy of itself. For the very first time, information from the past is directed to the future. It's done biologically, in silence.

50-100,000 years ago. IT in language. Stories. "No transition has affected our species, or the world at large, more than the creation of language" writes Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine. Narrative follows and is just as consequential. Down the road, someone, somewhere, tells the first Story of Everything.

5,000 years ago. IT in writing. Clay. Papyrus. Stylus and ink. Scrolls (see one). Text based on pictures, then on sound. Here's where things get interesting. All manner of daily accounting is now remembered accurately, but in the spiritual realm writing seems otherworldly, magical. Can you trust it? At times the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah has his doubts: "How dare you say: 'We are wise, and we possess the law of Yahweh. See how it has been falsified by the lying pen of the scribes!"

The same skepticism appears in India. "People did not believe it was possible to convey a spiritual teaching in writing," writes Karen Armstrong. "You could not, for example, understand the full meaning of the Upanishads simply by perusing the texts." You still needed oral culture--a teacher. Otherwise, the written word would freeze stories, encouraging a "misplaced clarity and certainty about matters that are essentially elusive and ineffable."

2000 years ago. IT in a codex (see). Take a blank scroll, cut it into sheets, fold the sheets in half, sew them together through the folds, cover with two wooden boards. Write on both sides of each "page." You get a codex, or what we now call a book. The technology develops in the first century AD and Christians are quick to adopt it. Small codices grow larger. "Once it was possible to produce and view (or visualize) 'the Bible' under one set of physical covers, the concept of 'canon' became concretized in a new way that shapes our thinking to the present day," writes religious historian Robert Kraft (here and here). Some stories are "in," some are "out."

In the fourth century the emperor Constantine makes a request for 50 of these mega-codices. They may be the first Bibles. Not surprisingly, he also makes sure, in 325, that Christianity produces a uniform statement of belief. Now Christianity's sacred stories exist in a single Book and a single Creed. Before, a few of the Book's texts claimed to be inspired; now the whole collection does. It's all the "word of God."

Fast forward a thousand years. Parchment, made from animal skin, has replaced papyrus as the surface of choice. Books (Bibles among them) are so expensive to produce and so rare that in 1424 the library at Cambridge University contains only 122, each with the value of a farm or vineyard. The creedal value of Christianity's stories matches their IT value. Their nature has been changed irreversibly, in a way impossible for us to fathom.

Next week: The transformation continues with printing. Can we recover the sense of story embedded in speech alone?

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COPYRIGHT (C) 2009 JOHN N. KOTRE

1 comment:

Dan L said...

Yes, the stories that tradition had passed down to us have become transformed into that -- stories of the day -- which they -- stories of the night -- had not originally been. Then we transform those stories of the night into creeds. We need always to bear that in mind.
On the other hand we need to bear in mind that the Spirit of the Lord has continually been working in the community as it formulated its creeds. Thus, even when we discover that our creeds emerged from myths and metaphors, we can trust that the Spirit had led us to
fashion beliefs that envision not only that God works among us, but also the manner in which God works among us.