Christianity and the Future of the Book
Last year I led a seminar on this topic for some faculty colleagues here at Wheaton. Just before our last meeting I sent to the group a list of Theses for Disputation. I thought I might reproduce them here, in case anyone is interested.
No particular technology can be usefully evaluated in isolation from the whole network of technologies to which it is inevitably related.
Technologies have become the chief means by which networks of power and influence — what Michel Foucault called “power-knowledge regimes” — are sustained.
Brian Brock refers to the current regime as “technological modernity,” while Neil Postman calls it “Technopoly,” but both of them help us identify the key features of the regime: a commitment to rationalization and regularization of human behavior; a confidence that tools can direct human will into proper channels, with what is “proper” being wholly accessible to autonomous human reason; a belief in the inevitability of progress; and an insistence that technologies are always neutral, equally capable of being used for good or ill.
Stanley Hauerwas has rightly said that to be a Christian is to work “with the grain of the universe,” but none of those core commitments of Technopoly run wholly (or at all) with the grain of the Christian story.
Therefore, while working against the grain of anything is wearisome, to that we are called. Any thought that we can create a form of life that will allow us to live always with the grain, and therefore without struggle and tension, amounts to a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Paul’s images of “running the race” and “fighting the good fight” do not just concern internal “spiritual” struggles.
One branch or department of technological modernity is called “higher education.” As individual teachers and scholars, we have, in order to be in the world though not of it, chosen some degree of accommodation to the standards of this regime in order to achieve its accreditation and recognition. As an institution, Wheaton College has done the same.
Walter Ong points out that no society that has achieved literacy has even voluntarily returned to a condition of primary orality. This is a specific example of a general rule: When a once-dominant technology yields to a new one, it does not disappear, but its cultural role changes and it never becomes dominant again. Similarly, there is no point in imagining that either we as individuals or Wheaton as an institution can fully, or even mostly, extricate ourselves from the regime of higher education. This is the specific form the burden identified in point 5 takes for us.
So our daily vocational prayer might be something like this: “Lord, I want to work with the grain of your story, your Creation, your Way. Teach me to discern the direction that grain runs, and help me to identify what runs against it. Through your indwelling Spirit and the common life of your Church, give me courage and strength to follow the path that you set before me.”
Any thoughts about the role of the book in our professional lives and more generally our lives as Christ-followers must be pursued within the parameters of the reflections above. We should not revere the book or any other technology in itself, but value it insofar as it helps us to work with the grain of God’s universe.
As a corollary, any decision to stick with paper codices instead of digital texts will be a trivial decision if in most other respects we are unreflective participants in Technopoly.
The codex certainly seems to have been especially well-suited to the preservation and transmission of the Gospel, but we don’t have a control group for purposes of comparison, nor can we roll back the tape of history and replay it with the codex taken out. A Church without codices might have been worse than the one that arose; it might have been better; it surely would have been different, with a different mix of virtues and vices. There’s no way for us to know.
There is no power-knowledge regime under which the Gospel cannot be preached and the Christian life practiced. God will not leave us comfortless, even if He allows our codices to be taken away.
If we value codices, we should strive to preserve them. But we can only do this if we first think critically and seriously about why we love them — what virtues they embody that we do not want to lose.
If we do this, then we will be better prepared to adapt if codices (or other technologies that we like) decline. Being practiced in working against the grain of our social order, we will remember that even unfamiliar and unpromising technologies can be turned to godly purposes.
This does not mean that those technologies are neutral, only that they are to some degree redeemable. Remember, our decision to accept, even if only provisionally, the rules and standards of our disciplines and institutions means that we have given up a full range of choices about our technologies.
“I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” — Lesslie Newbigin
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