The Word: Written on the heart or wiped from the screen?

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.

Richard Greatrex


7 thoughts on “The Word: Written on the heart or wiped from the screen?

    • Yep, agree with Phil. Lots to ponder. I almost want a hard copy version so I can peruse without the glare of a computer screen…….

  1. Thank you Richard – for such musings! There is a lot of meat to chew here – and like others it may need time to digest. However, to respond at once, briefly, can I pick up on your closing thought about the babble of competing heterodoxies? I confess to being more comfortable with the spectrum of interpretations of Gospel truth than with a narrow orthodoxy that, sadly, can so easily fall prey to the control of those who “think they know best”. Truly we need to seek and acknowledge the homogeny of truth – but I am aware that such truth – as we discern it – can be subjective and – possibly – flawed.
    Yes, indeed, a flexible orthodoxy may be desirable – but we know that postmodernity has stormed the ramparts of orthodoxia. The city walls may now be broken down and our the security in Christendom is no more [should secular council meetings be prefaced by public prayer?!] but at least it provides the impetus for “Gospellers” to venture out into the midst of the world.
    Could I offer 2 Kings 7 as a parable?
    The besieged church has disowned and expelled those from within their midst who are infected with dangerous diseases and such people have decided to seek refuge with the enemy – where they discover that the hostile forces have retreated and instead they find treasures and sustenance. What strikes me most about this story is that when they reported their amazing discovery to the King he – understandably – believes it to be a cunning ploy by the Assyrians – but in fact it turns out to be God’s provision for his people! I trust I will not be like the captain – trampled in the gate – for failing to recognise God at work!

    • Dear Pete

      Many thanks for your response – and truly I share your discomfort with a narrow cast view of the Faith. But then, I’m an Anglican, and that means my prevailing orthodoxy is still (despite many attacks upon it from without and within) pretty broad – from those parts of the Church who are strongly in the conservative reformed tent and those who rest securely under the conservative Catholic baldacchino and those who are in the traditional Anglican mansion-on-the-hill to those who are still trying to erect tents for liberal reformed, liberal catholic, open evangelical, charismatic, LBGT, fresh-expressions, etc. communities.

      However, I guess I do have limits as to what is Christian and what is not – which means I do see that there are boundaries to orthodoxy. Which I think makes Christianity and post-modernity uncomfortable bed fellows. Of course, if you ask me to define what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ then I will struggle. Certainly if it is not Trinitarian, if it denies the divinity of Christ or the humanity of Christ or severely elevates one aspect over the other then I would suggest it was beyond the pale. And if it was racist, misogynistic, homophobic or warmongering then I would be extremely wary of it as a God-inspired expression of the Gospel.

      Your quoting from 2 Kings 7 is apposite and brings me back to an illustration I use over and again. When John of the Cross was imprisoned and maltreated by his fellow Carmelites for daring to reform the excesses of the order, he was held in a tiny cell in solitary confinement. Late one night he heard a drunkard in the road below singing a bawdy love song to his beloved. It changed John’s life as that raucous rendering of a ribald rhyme inspired some of the most Christ-filled expressions of poetry ever written and from them came the classic commentaries of those same poems which have given countless Christians strength, understanding, insight and a closer walk with God. So, yes God works within the church, on the margins and outside the margins, God works in totally unexpected places and through resources we might often see as contradictory and flawed.

      But finally, in concentrating on post-modernity I may well have missed a crucial question, which it seems still remains unanswered – are we post-Church? Could it be that the work of the Church is done? That its role in God’s unfolding plan has come to an end? That where the Church has become a monolith, a global brand with a corporate hymn sheet, it has negated its own usefulness? Could it be that post-modernity is not one of the tools for the destruction of a broad-sweep Christian orthodoxy but a hammer to break open the institutionalisation of the Gospel? Might it not be, that in a world which seems dominated by both globalization and individualization in equal measure, Christianity will not survive in unwieldy ecclesiastical vessels but in millions and millions of tiny virtual and physical base communities each refracting the Faith through the prism of their special interests? If this is in any way the case then the role of the internet and all other forms of mass globalized communication will be very interesting. It could be that the internet will give each and every expression of faith the space to become a competing voice in a never-ending babble. Or it might be that it will draw all these many disparate elements together, stitching them into the web of a composite new over-arching orthodoxy.


      • Thanks, Richard. I agree that there is probably more congruency between our views than I may have assumed last night. In fact, I believe your image of postmodernity as “a hammer to break open the institutionalisation of the Gospel” is a great way of describing my own view.
        It may be that my own upbringing within the narrow confines of convinced fundamentalism has caused me to react against any assumptions and assertions of of unchallenged “truth”. I remember the freedom I experienced when reading the words spoken by John Robinson before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World that “Lord had more light and truth yet to break forth out of His ho­ly word”. I first came across these in George Rawson’s hymn: We limit not the truth of God.
        I think church history bears witness to the fact that, inevitably, a new movement of God’s Spirit all too soon can become a monument to human hubris and a route to power for misguided individuals.
        Yes, indeed, God does come and shake his people – challenging our comfortable attitudes and stirring us to rethink our theology in the light of new discoveries and in the presence of an ever-changing world.
        Maybe postmodernity will prove to be an exciting catalyst for God’s work to flourish in brave, new ways across all the frontiers.

  2. Richard. This is very thought-provoking but I’m going to have to read it a few times before I fully get my head around it. The move from print to digital is not one I particularly welcome. I spent a wonderful few hours at the British Library last week looking at their Sacred Texts exhibits. The illustrated MSS took their writers years of their lives to complete. Now things are almost too immediate. Thanks for these reflections and I do wish your new enterprise well.

  3. Pingback: Beyond Postmodernity: are we post-Church? « Phil's Boring Blog

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