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S1E3: In The Beginning Were Words
(The following is the manuscript for episode three of season one of the Breaking the Digital Spell podcast, which premiered on September 4th, 2018. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Gospel of John opens up with a beautiful description of the lordship and majesty of Jesus Christ by echoing the very first words of Scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” Jesus Christ, the Son of God sent by the Father, was not a being created by God but was present with the Father and the Spirit in the very act of creation, and as the Apostle Paul writes in the book of Colossians, “For by him all things were created, in a heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” In Genesis, we see God’s creation unfold by His spoken word – eight times in Genesis 1 we see the words “And God said”, and whatever is spoken of, happens.
But even though John was writing of the glory of the Son of God, he is unintentionally correct in another area as well. In the history of technology, language, and communication, in the beginning…were words.
A crash course in the history of human communication is way beyond the scope of this podcast, so please forgive me in advance if my generalizations are too simplistic, but in general terms, words have been the dominant mode of communication through the majority of human history, and advances in technology have all revolved around making words more powerful and permanent. With the development of Cuneiform script by the Sumerians around the 4th millennium BC, words went from being communicated from our mouths and heard by our ears to now something that could be written with our hands and read by our eyes. There were ways to communicate with images well before writing – the drawings in the rocks of caves, the rise of Egyptian hieroglyphics being two easy examples of this – but at the end of the day, the world began to revolve around the technology of the spoken and written word. Of course, those who could read and write would start off as a very small and select group of elites, often tied to religious and political roles, but even those who couldn’t read or write in a written language understood that language when those words were read aloud to them. It’s a scene we see several times in the Old Testament, where the people of God are gathered together to hear the Law read before them by someone who could read aloud in the language the people spoke – one such instance occurs at the end of the book of Nehemiah:
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.” - Nehemiah 8:1-3 (ESV)
Its a common misconception that the God of the Bible is a God who is opposed to human ingenuity and progress – that advances in science, technology, and communication are of no importance to God, because He is just going to do his own thing. And yet, this scene in the book of Nehemiah – a scene also seen in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Kings, the Chronicles, and Ezra – we see the exact opposite happening. Far from being opposed to technology, God has chosen a particular form of technology – writings contained in books – as the means by which He reveals himself to his people. In fact, God loves this form of technology so much that His revelation would be written and recorded completely in a set of historical records, poems, letters, and other documents compiled together and called the Bible, and he has seen fit that his kingdom would be spread forth not through images, but through the proclamation of the Gospel, a message of victory and deliverance from sin by Jesus Christ. As Heidi A. Campbell and Stephen Garner explain,
“The adoption of the papyrus codex, a precursor of the book, marked the acceptance of a particular expression of media technology that became a significant part of Christian identity and the Christian church. Moreover, the physical form of the codex, seen as containing the sacred writings and accounts of the faith, became so significant that its protection and veneration were causes of martyrdom….In addition to the Hebrew Scriptures, Christian accounts of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers and helpful letters to churches were collected together and declared the sacred Word of God. Thus, a form of technology found in the codex and the book made its way into the Christian church and shaped the faith itself.” -Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, “Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture”
Once the establishment of the canon was complete, the focus shifted not from writing and recording more revelations from God, but on creating written documents called “creeds” that would summarize key teachings of the Bible into an accessible and concise expression that churches far and wide could agree on. The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and several other documents would be produced that outline essential summaries for faith in Jesus Christ. Not only were these documents created to help maintain the unity and agreement of the Church on the most important matters of Christianity, they were also meant to help pastors teach their congregations about the key teachings of Scriptures – keep in mind, owning a Bible, much less being able to read one, wasn’t an everyday reality for most Christians. Chances were that, unless you were a pastor, academic, or politician, your reading and writing skills probably weren’t all that great, which poses a pretty big problem when you believe in a Savior who you personally haven’t seen with your eyes, but who’s life, death, and resurrection are testified to in a document that you personally can’t read. Combined with the fact that the Bible is a pretty big book – my personal Bible spans nearly 1,600 pages of printed text – and not laid out in a topical order or edited for topical clarity, and you have two significant obstacles rooted in the technology of the book. The creeds and confessions overcame both of these obstacles by being documents short enough to memorize by the everyday believer, and being summaries of the most important truths of the Scriptures that makes discipleship a consistent process. For example, consider how brief the Nicene Creed is, but how many topics are covered:
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” - The Nicene Creed
Even if you didn’t have access to the Scriptures (or be able to read it if you had them), you learned the truth of the Scriptures by reciting a creed, and in reciting that creed with other believers, you formed a community around the spoken word formed from the written word. You formed the church. We all know how powerful it is to recite something in unison with others – think the Pledge of Allegiance – and the creeds of the early church were a means of cementing that collective identity of believers together, regardless of their ability to read. As we will discuss in later episodes, mediums create communities, and the medium of the spoken words of the creed gave the church a theological identity.
Fast forward a few centuries, and advances in printing technology would be the means by which one of the most significant moments in the history of the Church – the Protestant Reformation – would take place. By the time Martin Luther nailed his copy of the 95 Theses on the castle door of the church of Wittenberg in 1517, the Gutenberg printing press, created by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440, had been widely adopted and was giving birth to the earliest expression of “the press”. The ability to now print books at significantly cheaper cost and at relatively quicker speeds opened the door for an explosion in literacy, as more people now had the chances to own books – and, of course, had a greater incentive to know how to read those books. It also opened the door, for the first time in the history of Christianity, for the Bible to become a book that both minister and layperson could read and understand, and long before Luther began printing his German translation of the Bible for his countrymen to read, William Tyndall would labor long and hard to do the same in English. Where the ability to publish written material had been well within the control of the church and state, the printing press made that privilege more widespread and readily available outside the upper class – something the Reformers would take advantage of as they published their religious literature and distributed it to the masses, knowing that persecution would happen, but that the Catholic Church couldn’t completely shut down their operations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Protestant Reformation, in addition to being a theological movement, was also a media revolution, and would not have happened without the advent of the printing press.
Christianity is a religion based on the spoken and written word. We believe that God spoke creation into existence. We believe that God spoke to the patriarchs of Genesis, to Moses in a burning bush, to the Israelites through the a written document we call the Law, through the Psalms, through the Prophets, through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, through the letters of Paul, Peter, and John, and that all of these documents are inspired by the same Spirit despite being written by dozens of authors and over the span of several centuries. We believe God still speaks to his people today through the Bible, which is part of the reason why we call it the Word of God. Whatever visual descriptions we get from the Bible, we get not from drawings or illustrations, but from detailed explanations of their design or appearance. Christianity has never been a religion where the substance of our faith is based around visual media of some kind – aside from those who lived and walked with Jesus, those who came before him believed in the coming of the Messiah by faith, and those who have come after him believe in his return by the same faith, a faith made known to us through the Word of God. Yes, at one point there was a majestic and beautiful temple that the people of God would have seen and beheld every day (and quite a bit of ink is spent to describe what this would’ve looked like), but as the author of Hebrews makes clear, “Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” The temples, with its sacrifices, pointed to the true and greater sacrifice and priestly service of Jesus Christ, and now that Christ has come and atoned for the sins of the world, we receive this blessing not by sight, but by faith – a faith shaped and formed by a book, and the words in that book.
At this point, it should go without saying that any time there are improvements in technology that allow for the transmission and communication of words, Christianity stands to benefit from those improvements. Radio, one of the most enduring forms of mass communication of modern times, remains an incredibly powerful tool for communicating Christianity in difficult places, and don’t even get me started on the wonderful phenomenon of podcasting (which, obviously, I’m a huge fan). We are so far down the road from the printing press of the Reformation that we can pay for tiny, miniature household printers for our own personal use, if we don’t want to use the incredibly powerful duplex units up at the office that can spit out dozens of pages a minute. Mass-printed Bibles, while still having value and use today, are no longer the most cost efficient way to make the Scriptures available to people – a single PDF document can be shared to significantly more people for significantly cheaper costs, and Bibles can be distributed to believers in nations hostile to Christianity through something as small as a flash drive or SD card. Although there is something to be said about the differences between digital text and printed text, its no secret that the Internet has made available a wealth of treasures on the history of Christianity and insight on how to live as a believer in today’s world. Of course, its also made available a wide swath of nonsense, fabrications, misinformation, and even outright lies, and those are very legitimate and serious critiques to consider, but, thinking back to the previous episode, a technologically optimistic view of technology sees the good that can come for Christianity when technology makes the transmission of text, words, documents, and books more doable and more available. If we believe, as the Westminster Confession states, that God makes use of means to accomplish his ends, then means by which the Bible becomes more readily available, sound doctrine more readily accessible, and the history of the Church more readily available, are means by which we ought to be thankful for as we take advantage of them – and encourage others to take advantage of them.
But what happens when there are improvements in technology that promote images over words? And what happens when society begins to heavily adopt these technologies that begin to shape our culture not through words, but through images? On the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we are going to look at what happens when a world shaped by worlds slowly becomes shaped by images – images that come to them live, in color, and in the comfort of their own home.