I’ve been thinking lately about the importance that the written word (any word, not just The Word of God) has in our Modernist culture, as opposed to what is merely spoken. A few weeks ago Ben Witherington published on his website the text of a speech he gave at Baylor University on the subject of “Sacred Texts in an Oral Culture.” The “speech” got me thinking further on the subject, and also serves, somewhat ironically, as a recursive demonstration of the oral presentation converted to a written form.
On one hand, the pragmatism of converting oral to written information is obvious; any oral presentation has a somewhat limited audience, but the written form greatly multiplies the potential audience, while also serving to preserve the integrity of the material. Witherington’s point, however, was this: in ancient cultures, the written word was not seen as having greater integrity than the oral word, and he posits that the New Testament documents were initially written to be orally presented. We do know that in the 1st Century, the “Word of God” did not necessarily refer to any written document, but to the message as preached by the Apostles.
Due to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the resulting growth of literacy, it appears to me (not that I’m any expert) that coincidental with Modernism was a growing reliance on the written word over the oral. Where once someone’s “word” was as good as you’d get (accompanied at times with a covenantal sign or witnesses), written documents grew to be considered more trustworthy. In the West, written tradition is accepted, oral tradition is questioned. In the East (which avoided Modernism and a number of other “isms”), that’s not necessarily the case. Today in the West, our “word” is essentially meaningless, without some piece of paper somewhere with our signature affixed to it. We hear some news item on the radio or TV, and immediately look to confirm it in print (including the electronic written word as “print”). As much as I love the written word, I wonder, have we become a society of bibliolators (or at least bibio-snobs), holding the written word in too high esteem?
But, perhaps the tension is not between the oral and the written, but between the cultural dynamics that accompany them. One is fluid, interactive, and based in community; the other is static, actually discouraging interaction and community. As Marshall McLuhan so aptly put it, “the medium is the message.” In the context of Christianity, we can see differences: On one hand, the Word of God is “living and active;” on the other hand, we have theological nit-picking over words and phrases and the fundamentalist, inflexible words of legalism. Did the Ephesians spend months picking apart Paul’s letter when it was read to them? It would be interesting indeed to know how these letters were received and treated, or how the 1st Century Church would feel about how we treat their letters.
Yesterday I read a very interesting blog post over at Totally Baked that got me thinking in another direction. Quixote writes about the blog’s short-term nature:
[I]n the blog we have access to a streaming ticker seamlessly tracing the internal weather of our collective psyche. Like Heraclitus’ ever-changing river, blogdom is a relentlessly variable torrent of the topical where history is only the last post.
In considering these thoughts, the medieval troubadour or minstrel came to mind, the roving conveyor of news and gossip, completely oral in nature. He was here today, gone tomorrow, to be followed by the next singer of songs and teller of tales, gathering news as quickly as he disseminated it. Could it be that the blog, with it’s overtly communal, participatory, grass-roots nature, has become a vehicle for the type of organic spread of information that we’ve been missing since the inception of the rather imperialist institutions of the book, the tract, the newspaper and the broadcast media? Could it really be they who controlled culture for a time (yes, I know, I really am sounding McLuhanish now).
As I researched (read “googled”) the issue, I came across a very interesting paper by John December entitled “Characteristics of Oral Culture in Discourse on the Net.” The paper states that is was “presented at the twelfth annual Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition, University, Park, Pennsylvania, July 8, 1993.” Obviously a very intelligent man, December makes a similar point (pre-blog, of course) about computer-mediated communication:
This paper presents observations of a computer chat and a computer bulletin board system that illustrate qualities of orality in CMC. The implications of these oral qualities in CMC forums is that, ultimately, new discourse communities are created, with vast political, cultural, and social implications, recreating the immediacy of pre-literate cultures, but adding on space- and time-independence.
Would it be even better if blogs disintegrated after a few days, if we were forced to recall, to discuss, and to relay information from our rather inadequate memories? I’m not sure about that. I tend to love being able to Google nearly anything. But, perhaps it is time for us to let go (just a little) of our bibliolatry, our informational imperialism, to loose our grip on “it says right here!” and recover some of the spirit of oral tradition. Perhaps.
Go, blog. Go.