Thursday, 14 November 2013

Does the Death of Writing Mean the Death of Protestantism?

The Gospel of St John, Tyndale's New Testament, 1525
Last week I was down with the "flu", although I managed to take a service on Sunday, and this week I've contracted a chest infection which has inflamed my asthma. The enforced downtime has given me more time than usual to experience 'The Great Din' otherwise known as the internet. I came across this piece on the death of writing and its likely influence on politics, written with the USA in view but probably also applicable to Australia and other western democracies.

I was particularly interested in the author's use of the journal a soldier in the American Civil War as an illustration of a literate culture because to my mind the most powerful aspect of Ken Burns's brilliant TV documentary The Civil War (yes, TV can inform and even edify, but only if at the same time it fulfils its primary purpose, which is to entertain)  was not the images (the documentary was inspired by Matthew Brady's well known war photographs) but the words read from the letters and journals of participants, often simple foot soldiers from industrial towns in the north-east or farms in the deep south. Their words, earnest and simple but yet capable of expressing the most profound reflections on life and death, are just one example that testifies to the 19th C. as the peak of the literate Christian culture of the Western world.

By literate culture I don't mean just the ability to read and write, which is officially still in the 95-100% range for Australia, the US & Canada and Europe (although there are anecdotal reports that suggest those figures are inflated), but a culture in which reading remains the primary means of acquiring new information and writing remains the primary means of reflection and communication. And all this was Christian in that, even for atheists and other dissenters from the common vision, it took place under the generous imaginative canopy provided by the Bible, which gave this world its religious outlook, its ethics, its aesthetics and, in translation, its language. We in the West (using that more as a cultural than a geographical term) are clearly in a transition phase: heading out of a Christian literate culture and into a Pagan visual culture and have been for some time, probably since  television broadcasting expanded in the 1950s.

Something the author doesn't note is that Protestantism was the matrix of mass literate culture in the West. "Protestantism" is not a very helpful term to use in either history or theology, for the various reform movements, including Lutheranism (the ur-Protestants of the second Diet of Spires), rural Swiss Zwinglianism, urbane Genevan Calvinism with its Scottish and English Presbyterian versions, the typically English hybrid of Anglicanism and the radical Anabaptists, are too heterogeneous in historical origin and doctrine for one umbrella term to do them justice. But "Protestantism" can be used sociologically as a sort of short-hand term to denote the broad culture that these various movements gave impetus to in the lives of the western European peoples who embraced them.

Central to that culture was the value attached to the written word, which of course stemmed from the high value placed upon the Holy Bible and which led to systems of public education whose goal was to make even the humblest subjects and citizens literate, particularly in the Bible. Thus, Luther could write, exhorting nobles to establish and expand public education: "That which should be read first and most universally in the higher and lower schools must be the Holy Scriptures, and for the youngest boys, the Gospels. And would God that every town also had a girls’ school wherein the maidens might hear the Gospel for an hour every day, be it in German or Latin… Is it not meet that every Christian should know the whole of the Holy Gospel, wherein His name and His life are written, by the age of 9 or 10?" [Martin Luther, Address to the Christian Nobility (1520)]. Melanchthon developed the curriculum for the German Lutheran version of public education, adapting the humanist liberal arts curriculum to the purposes of the Lutheran Reformation and expanding it to include the burgeoning sciences. His model proved quite influential outside of the German lands too, and is even being studied again today as a live option for educators seeking alternative models to secular education, which despite popular perceptions, is not neutral in its philosophy or practice.

Now, if we are witnessing the death of writing, does that mean also the death of Protestantism? We need to be cautious here because 1) it is impossible to predict the future; all we can do is project present trends and speculate; 2) even those trends have exceptions - present day publishing statistics alone might suggest we are presently in a golden era of book reading supported by recalcitrant spirits like my thirteen year old daughter, who has already has a personal library of c. 100 books;  3) the adopted children of Protestantism, so to speak, in Asia, Africa and South America give signs of aspiring to a high degree of literacy born of the desire to read and study the Bible and may inaugurate a renaissance of literate Protestant culture in different customary dress. But, it is hard to deny that the literate Protestant culture born in western Europe and exported with migrants to the new world probably died on the battle fields of World War I,  an epochal event which cast the West into a downward spiral from which it cannot pull out (just consider how many of the major and minor geo-political flashpoints of today had their fuses lit in the immediate aftermath of WWI). In that case, perhaps the better question to ask is "Has the death of Protestantism led to the death of writing?"

Be that as it may, as a sociological phenomenon "Protestantism" may be dead but I have no doubt the various ecclesial movements named above will continue a sub-cultures, or probably more likely, given the nascent shape of the soon-to-be reigning culture which slouches into view more clearly every moment, as counter-cultural movements in the West. In order to do this what they cannot surrender or neglect is their commitment to developing and passing on a literate Christian culture born of their love for the Word of God written, through which they might become islands of learning and devotion, a little like the communities of Irish monks who survived and even thrived in their own way during a previous dark age. That will necessitate a thoroughgoing reform of their educational institutions and methods, which, at least in my sphere of activity and observation, have long since been surrendered to the approaching, slouching beast. 


1 comment:

vdma said...

Thank you for this excellent article. Writing that provokes thought is good.

Here is a link to an article by influential and popular photographer Trey Ratcliff entitled, "Humans Evolve a New Form of Literacy... Through Images."

The Apostle John said, "The word became flesh..." I never saw Christ, but I heard his word, and the word creates an image, that no image can do justice.