The weekend I was made redundant from Christian bookselling I was at the Swan Theatre in Stratford watching David Edgar’s play ‘Written on the Heart’. There was a fractious symmetry in the events taking place on both the theatrical stage and on the floor of the shops I served. One day I was witnessing the sheer bloody vitality of the written text – the battles fought over translations of the Bible in the creation of the King James Version. The next I was pulling books from shelves and boxing them up to be warehoused. Here was a tangible and painful sign that the printed text was no longer king, the bookshop, like the library, was no longer a place of pilgrimage, the book as a repository of information was no longer a sacred and venerated object.
The King James Version of the Bible has never been my favourite translation. Of course there are times when I have revelled in its language – the compound verb ‘loving-kindness’ still has a particular unsurpassed resonance for me – but at others I have been stupefied by the tongue-twisting pile-up of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. I can admit to its crucial place in our history as a pivotal work in the maturing of both the protestant English church and the English language while at the same time retaining a deep distrust of its ancient manuscript credentials which render it inadequate to me and many other Christians as a true reading of the Word of God.
The same reservations I feel for the text seem to have been carried over in society to the mode of transmission itself – the printed book is giving way to an electronic ghost of its own corporeal form. Despite many misgivings we are urged to see the rise of the e-book as not a loss but a gain, not depriving but enriching. It opens up new vistas for communication, new opportunities for evangelism, new ways of connecting with more people, more personally.
However, losing the physicality of the printed book is having repercussions in society as drastic and far-reaching as the invention of the printing press. Not only is text becoming more ephemeral – only lasting as long as battery-life, the chip it is stored on or until the electricity runs out – but text is losing its sacred nature. If it can be written over, erased and redacted at the stroke of a finger then much of its potency and authority is swiped away. If Moses received the Ten Commandments written on an Android tablet universal access would have depended on which version of the operating system it was formatted for. And how long would it be before the edited version went viral – ‘thou shalt commit adultery’ – with no chance of recall as with the Wicked Bible of 1631? Post-modernity’s credo of no meta-narratives is still in the ascendancy – the Reformation and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the primacy of the word is in disarray – there is a paradigm shift in the exploration of texts that relies not on text in original context but text conceptualised to fit a plethora of contemporary contexts.
Which leaves the doctrine of sola scriptura searching for a new direction to counterbalance contemporary society’s profound dissatisfaction with a single over-arching authority. Of course, such developments provide opportunities for new expressions of faith. A revisiting of the power of symbol and action to convey aspects of the numinous is resurgent and suggests one way to draw the amorphous spirituality underpinning the lives of many into a Christocentric focus.
The decline of use of our libraries is a result of this fall from grace of the printed text. With so much of the traditional reference and entertainment aspects of the library now available online the whole establishment is under attack. Austerity struck councils see slashing the library budget as a fair reduction in what is deemed to be a non-essential service. Would you prefer not to have your bins collected every week on not to be able to pop up the road to borrow the latest blockbuster paperback? If it is true, as some statistics suggest, that the average number of books read per person per year is four then libraries, and for that matter, bookshops, are very low on the list of social priorities.
Following the First World War, when church attendance began to decline steadily and severely, libraries took up part of the role formerly held by churches as the repository of the folk culture and knowledge for a locality. They became vital centres for community activity and education, the noticeboards of a neighbourhood. But the fracturing of society, which the individualistic policies of the Thatcherite governments of the 1980s and early 1990s did much to exacerbate, coupled with the rise of web-driven social networking within a global context, has rendered libraries as obsolete as the concept of a local community which they were founded to serve. They are proving to be extremely susceptible to closure by cash-strapped authorities and while their passing is mourned by a vociferous and insightful minority the majority has long since ceased using them and either stopped relying on print media or turned to the internet for access to reading material.
The issues driving libraries to the brink of extinction have doubly affected our bookshops whose reliance on market forces rather than the benevolence of councils acting in the public interest has made them intensely vulnerable in an retail environment which is withdrawing from the high street. Even some of the famous independent bookshops which once seemed to be deeply embedded in their local community have disappeared and the massacre of the chains has continued apace since the fall of Dillons in the mid 1990s.
Which leads us where? To a society that looks for intellectual sustenance, entertainment and information not in books, not in bricks and mortar public repositories but in the new online space. It is unfair to call the networks and communities formed by social media ‘virtual’ as if that is inferior to ‘physical’, geographically grounded ones. It is true to say that some of the aspects of what we have previously called ‘community’ are not so evident in these new emanations. But we need time to allow them to develop and to allow ourselves to adapt to new realities. There will be a place for bookshops for many years to come – in smaller numbers than before, probably on a smaller scale and with the uniqueness of each more easily definable than in the past – but their existence will depend on their adaptability to a swiftly changing market. Whether more than a handful of monumental libraries will exist in twenty years from now is impossible to tell, but their slide out of fashion is an opportunity for churches to reclaim the position as the social hubs for their communities – virtual, local, denominational, generational and political – as they seek to re-interpret and re-present the unchanging heart of the Gospel as a still point in a turning world.
Finally, we have moved way, way beyond the situation where the scholars, clerics and politicians behind the King James Bible were able to write on the hearts of the majority of the people one translation of Scripture, one model of faithful adherence to God’s Word. We are surrounded by a myriad of translations, they are out in the world each engaged in an aspect of God’s work. Now is the crucial time for all churches, denominations, scholars, preachers, teachers, missionaries, workers and believers in the Christian faith to find ways of ensuring that they do not create a babble of competing heterodoxies but instead develop a sustaining, engaging, inclusive and flexible orthodoxy which remains true to the resurrection message of Christ.