Theology of Technology
The Printing Press | Part 1 | Performance
In 1440, German inventor Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press process. His innovation in mechanization made it possible to print movable type. Into the present day, it is hard to measure how this bit of technology has changed our world. It has enabled people not merely to print books (a feat in itself!), but also to invent computers, printers, and other printing devices—and arguably one of the greatest blessings that this technology has added to our world is that it has given us the ability to print and distribute the Bible throughout the world, enabling billions to know God and grow in faith.
Having access however to such a textual innovation is fairly new, relative to history. Those who lived in the Early Church would have received the Word of God and Paul’s letters very differently. In this short post, it is my hope to consider how those in the Early Church were shaped by their method of transmission both theologically and in praxis. Today, reading profoundly shapes how people relate to and interpret the Bible, and this mode forms us very differently than the experiences of those living a framework of more oral traditions.
In the early world—and even among 82% of the world’s population today—oral transmission via performances were/are the norm. Those in oral traditions witness storytellers best transmitting the story of Scripture not by private reading, but instead through live performance. This method in turn does not dilute belief, but rather forms belief. Much like in ancient Rome, where as little as 5-8% of people were able to read, much of the world today boasts similar percentages; thus, performances are not only effective, they are essential. According to Botha Pieter, “performances were a central and an integral part of the early Christian experience…the collections of Second Testament writings we now have are records of what early Christians experienced in speech by performers in the community.”
In these performances, there were physical locations and socio-historical circumstances that shaped their reception, making theology instructive, communally synergetic, and transformational at the same time. In Paul’s mind, he was forming people and churches not merely theologically, but—in sending a person to represent him and not primarily a letter—he was forming minds, body language, inflection, tone, emotions, actions, and community. Additionally, we know that the letters of Paul were composed orally by Paul and recorded by a scribe or amanuensis, perhaps in several sessions—a possibility that may explain the stops and starts of a letter such as Philippians. Performance became necessary in light of such circumstances not only for those interpreting through hearing, but also for those writing and performing God’s Word.
Therefore, the connection made in oral (spoken) presentation went far deeper than mere interpretation; it was a means to connect the heart and soul of the global philosophy of the church. Dietrich Bonheoffer, “in a provocative essay unfinished at the time of his death, argued that truth and truth-telling are relational in their essence, part of a total reality seeking expression, and that for a word to be ‘true,’ it must first of all fit the relational requirements of a particular encounter.” Where it would seem odd for the text of the Bible to be read un-relationally in the context of a pub or coffee shop when considered through a shear textual lens, performing the Bible—whether it be memorized, pondered, performed, and lived out in the flesh of human day to day living—could breathe in and out of everyday conversation simply because its DNA possesses the same ethic.
How technology has formed us, our discipleship, and our faith…and what now?
How then might our experience of God and His word change if we perform it and interpret it through and as performance? Many in the church today may have been trained, either formally or informally, to see the Bible and discipleship as solely textual, rather than as an embodied drama. This has led to ineffective mission strategies aimed at serving the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, who are from oral traditions. This, in turn, has produced an anemic faith that is often disconnected from concrete living because text alone remains too abstract. This is not reflective of the mindset of those in the early church, nor of Jesus Himself. Not only is God’s revealing of Himself in Jesus Christ a performative event, but the Triune God inspired the Scriptures like a playwright, outlining the movement of God's Spirit in human affairs.
Since Jesus is both a “performance” and full representation of the Father, then there is tangible need to “en-flesh” the Scriptures in our discipleship in the way that he did. Not only are we to imitate Christ in the manner of character and way of life that we employ, but we are to follow his tactics of discipleship in deploring an ethic that not only speaks, but exemplifies parable. In my next post I will explore ways of doing this through the language we use and the animated inflections of tone and gesture that accompany best practices of communication.