Print and Power

History is clear that who ever can communicate defines the ideas and outcomes of a each age. The Reformation is the perfect example of the impact of a communication medium on the social landscape. As ideas could more easily be shared through pamphlets printed on movable type presses rather than hand copied tomes, the people began to take control of their own spiritual lives. In fact, it is no coincidence that translations of the scriptures flourished as they could be accessed in homes and not just the local cathedral.

The dark side of this historical maxim is that those who control the means of production, control the ideas and their dissemination. In simple terms, the printers took the power to speak from the abbots and bishops. It is no wonder that, in the age of the internet, there is a sea change in who speaks for the culture. In essence, there is a cacophony of voices all competing for attention and supremacy.

The television editorialists like Olbermann, Beck, and Maddow are clear examples of this speech battle, but it goes much beyond our flickering screens.  News writers vie with politicians for appropriate language for new events, trying to define the public consciousness through print and spoken word.  Underneath this struggle for listening ears is a market place where words are judged based on the power gained or the dollars accumulated.

Lest we think this is a 21st century development, the same was the case for the Reformation.  In that age, not only was the Church at war with itself over theological ideas and practice, secular leaders and bishops competed for the monetary allegiance of the people.  The most convincing speaker won the economic clout of the people.  For example, Luther’s critique of indulgences was not just a theological one but an economic challenge.  The buying and selling of grace was a form of economic oppression of the laity.  The princes of the day often sided with the reformer aware that money once dedicated to the Church would now be freed for local expansion of powers.  This was indeed possible now that publication was possible for everyone, not just the literate clerics in their scriptoriums.

Little has changed in the 16th century.  The Church continues this war of words and ideas through the printed medium.  Our congregations are often the front lines of this power struggle.  There, the words and ideas deemed orthodox by leaders are disseminated through official publications.  At the same time, market driven publications, both secular and religious, compete for the allegiance of the members.

The early modern view of information, then, is still pervasive within our religious structures.  Even for as democratizing as the Radical Reformation was, it has continued to assume an official voice can define the ideas and practices of a diverse church.  The rise of social networking and internet communication is radically challenging this assumption.  Now, even most hierarchical traditions, are faced with the expansive diversity of the once unified Church.  All it takes is a few minutes with Google to read of communities and individuals who have tenuous connections to the traditions which they claim.

The knee jerk reaction is to increase the forms of official speech by translating previous ideas into multiple media.  In a way its the same practice with added layers of production. Yet, the fundamental sense that words trickle down and form people without relationship or attention to their context is still present.  Unfortunately, this just adds to the flood of words, the battle for attention and allegiance.  In a way, the Church becomes just one more voice among the pundits.  The unfortunate result is that people will not weigh the ideas, but gravitate to the ideas that are the most familiar, or the one who speaks “just like me.”


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1 Comment

Filed under Discipleship, Theology

One response to “Print and Power

  1. Good historical reminders, Josh. Makes me think of Evangelical-turned-Mennonite pastor-turned-Mars Hill pastor, Shane Hipps, and his two books on electronic culture, which were published before digital social media such as Facebook et all really took off. Using McLuhan’s work – esp. the famous (overstated, overused) axiom, “the medium is the message,” – I think he made some points worth reflecting on for Christians and their engagement with any medium, but especially now digital media.

    The danger of groupthink is hugely and mostly invisibly accelerated in our digital hypercapitalistic age. Concepts/practices of “friend” and “like” that one finds on Facebook are one example of this. How easy it is to be connected, how easy it is to signal one’s various (often materialistic) affinities and affiliations. For consumers, this all looks on the surface to be the epitome of digital democracy that the web’s founders dreamed of, but especially Facebook is the incredibly powerful “man behind the curtain,” selling all this stuff to salivating marketers who – perhaps for the first time ever – are actually having their target markets volunteer their preferences!

    So yes, control of media has always been about power. Whose power? How is it being exercised? Whose story is underwriting its concepts and practices? How are those under its sway being acted upon? Do they know they’re being acted upon? Are they acting back? Can they?

    Hope I didn’t go too soapbox on you, Josh. 🙂

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